Abuse and fear at the Yeshiva of New Haven

Abuse and fear at the Yeshiva of New Haven

Published on March 20, 2020

Rabbi Daniel Greer LAW ’64 was once a venerated leader for New Haven’s Orthodox Jews. Now, he’s serving a 20-year prison sentence for sexually abusing a student at the Yeshiva of New Haven — a case that stunned the community and laid bare the culture of abuse at his religious schools.

Editor’s Note: This article contains graphic descriptions of sexual misconduct.

In 1977, the future was auspicious for Rabbi Daniel Greer LAW ’64.

He’d recently returned to New Haven after several years living in Israel with his wife, Sarah, and their newborn son, Dov ’98. He would go on to forge a close relationship with Mayor Ben DiLieto; his resume boasted a stint as the New York City deputy commissioner of ports and terminals; he held degrees from Princeton University and Yale Law School. He was ready to lead New Haven’s Orthodox Jewish community as a bastion of change.

“People would talk about him almost with reverence,” said Columbia School of Journalism professor Ari L. Goldman, who grew up 10 years Greer’s junior in the same Orthodox Jewish neighborhood on the Upper West Side of New York City. “His accomplishments [seemed] so unattainable to a young man in the yeshiva world.”

That year, the Greers established the Gan School, the first of three schools in the Edgewood neighborhood, which claimed to offer rigorous schooling to students from across the country who would otherwise forgo a premier Jewish education.

Nearly 40 years later, three former students publicly accused Greer of sexually abusing them while they were students at the Yeshiva of New Haven, where he served as dean. One such allegation saddled him with over $20 million in damages and a 20-year prison sentence.

In May 2016, New Jersey retirement home manager Eliyahu Mirlis, 32, filed a lawsuit against Greer, 79, alleging that the rabbi had sexually abused him dozens of times between 2002 and 2005, while he was a student at the yeshiva. A civil jury found the rabbi liable in 2017, ordering him to pay $21.7 million in punitive and compensatory damages, as well as legal fees. After a weeklong criminal trial in September 2019, Greer was found guilty of four counts of risk of injury to a minor and sentenced to 20 years in prison — though he can seek parole after 12 years. A federal appeals court upheld the civil verdict on March 3. Today, he is serving time at a state prison in Cheshire, Connecticut.

Rabbi Aviad Hack ’97, a yeshiva alumnus and eventual administrator, along with another former student — who testified anonymously as R.S.A. during the criminal trial — have both accused Greer of sexually abusing them, which Greer denies.

Over the past four years, the Orthodox Jewish community in New Haven has been rocked by accusations of sexual misconduct against Greer — a man prominent in the Elm City not only for his role as a religious leader but also for his work revitalizing the Edgewood neighborhood through real estate development. For more than 30 years, Greer ran a trio of small Jewish schools: the Gan School, serving elementary-aged students; the Tikvah High School for Girls; and the Yeshiva of New Haven. The schools have all ceased operation since allegations against the rabbi first surfaced.

Conversations with former students, parents and New Haven residents paint a disturbing picture of life at Greer’s schools. While academically rigorous, the yeshiva operated under a strict set of rules imposed under Greer’s and Hack’s often-unforgiving hands. Students recount disproportionate consequences for minor transgressions and Greer’s and Hack’s frequent touching of select boys. Students and state prosecutors both described Greer’s treatment of vulnerable students as fitting into a pattern of grooming. Many students only attended for a year, either choosing to withdraw or facing expulsion.

“The more you saw, the more you saw the weird stuff,” said Lawrence Dressler, a parent of a former yeshiva student.

Central to the school’s culture was the personality of Greer, the founder, dean and ultimate downfall of the yeshiva. In an interview with the News, New Haven Independent editor Paul Bass ’82 described Greer as a “cult figure” — a man who commanded absolute respect in his insular community and inspired fear in students. He doled out harsh and unusual punishments and chose favorite — and least favorite — pupils. He hosted students in his home often and served them alcohol.

Attorneys representing Greer and Hack did not respond to requests for comment.

As dean, Greer was subject to virtually no oversight, sources say. He created an environment in which manipulation and secrecy were normal, where emotional and sexual abuse went unchecked for decades, largely undetected by outside adults.

By conducting interviews with over a dozen of Greer’s colleagues, students and survivors, and reviewing nearly 100 pages of testimony and other court records, it becomes possible to piece together the story of a man who once represented the future of Orthodox Judaism and now spends his days behind bars. He leaves in his wake a community grappling with a fallen leader and childhoods marked by his abuse.

‘Something of a celebrity’

As a young man, Greer heralded a dynamic new form of Orthodox Judaism for many in his tight-knit community. He grew up on the Upper West Side of New York City in the 1940s and 50s, raised by two Modern Orthodox Jews. He attended high school at Manhattan Talmudical Academy and graduated in 1956.

In August 2019, after the state of New York passed a new iteration of the Child Victims Act, sexual abuse lawsuits rained down on the school. Thirty-eight former students made claims of abuse at the hands of school rabbis spanning four decades and dating back to the 50s, when Greer was a student.

After attending Princeton and Yale Law, Greer married school teacher Sarah Bergman in 1971. In 1972, he ran an unsuccessful campaign for the Democratic nomination for Upper West Side district representative in the New York state assembly.

Goldman grew up in Greer’s neighborhood and worked as his campaign manager. Though they lost, Goldman described the campaign team as being “totally enamored of and devoted to” Greer. “He was something of a celebrity in the neighborhood,” he said.

Goldman described the Orthodox Jewish community he was raised in as “very provincial” and having “limited horizons.” He said that Greer’s academic and professional endeavors broke the mold, inspiring Goldman himself to pursue experiences beyond their neighborhood.

In the decades that followed, Greer’s religious beliefs shifted to the right.

He and Sarah founded the Gan School in 1977 with the help of Harold Hack GRD ’75 and Adelle Hack GRD ’72, parents of alleged survivor Aviad Hack. Though Greer maintained a law office in the school’s early years, his role as a religious and educational leader gradually became his primary one, the transition running parallel to his ideological evolution.

Greer’s daughter, Batsheva ’00, was the lead plaintiff in the “Yale Five” case of the late 1990s, in which a group of Jewish undergraduates sued the University. The students alleged that Yale’s housing policy requiring unmarried first years and sophomores to live in coed dormitories discriminated against Orthodox Jewish students. A federal appeals court ruled in Yale’s favor in December 2000.

Columbia journalism professor Samuel Freedman interviewed both father and daughter for his 1998 New York Times Magazine piece about the case. “He was a purist,” Freedman said. “He thought [there was] no compromise on this issue, and he was clear that he was the one driving [the case].”

The rabbi worked hard to control his public image. In 1998, Bass published a story in the now-defunct New Haven Advocate entitled “Fortress Greer.” In the wide-ranging article, Bass explored the real estate empire Greer had built in the Edgewood neighborhood and the many tax-credit programs and federal block grants he used to fund the enterprise.

New Haven residents whom Bass interviewed for the article said much about Greer, from his rigidity as a landlord to the 8-feet-tall fences he erected around his properties. But you never hear from the rabbi himself — in an interview with the News, Bass recalled multiple fruitless efforts to convince Greer to provide comment, including visits to the yeshiva. “He pushed me down the stairs,” Bass told the News of one such encounter, an incident he also mentioned in the 1998 story.

After the article’s publication, Bass claimed, Greer’s associates removed bundles of newspapers from distribution sites around the Elm City. Today, few copies remain.

‘They would break you down’

Little is definitive about the history of the Greer schools. Their online presence is thin and widely scattered. Several websites — hosted on platforms such as WordPress and Tumblr — once promoted the yeshiva, but none appear maintained today. In interviews, former students and parents provided differing years of operation for all three schools. Many recalled that only a handful of students populated each grade, often dwindling to six or seven pupils by the year’s end due to expulsions and withdrawals. In some years, they said, the only students in any given class were Greer’s grandchildren.

Most sources suggest that the Gan School was founded as a coed elementary school and gradually evolved into the Yeshiva of New Haven as its male students reached high school age. Its counterpart, the Tikvah High School for Girls, was founded in 1988. Both high schools housed students — many from outside of Connecticut — in dormitories converted from homes owned by Greer’s network of nonprofits.

The yeshiva was located at 765 Elm St. in the former Roger Sherman School building. It looms over all the other houses on the block, leaves of ivy curling around the window frames and up the red brick walls. Over the decades, Greer acquired over four dozen surrounding homes in the neighborhood, using several for student housing but renovating and renting out the rest.

For students, daily life at the yeshiva was dictated by an intense schedule and high expectations.

“There was no room for error,” said one former student, who requested anonymity for fear of retribution. “If you were one minute late for prayers, and showed up at 7:01 instead of 7:00 … Five minutes at breakfast, that’s the point at which … you’d miss breakfast altogether. You wouldn’t eat.”

Jake Dressler, who attended the yeshiva between 2007 and 2008, described the “very strict regimen”: After rising early for morning prayer, students ate breakfast together and attended a full day of classes, alternating between secular and religious coursework, often without a break until 9:00 p.m., when they would return to the dorms to study.

The yeshiva was academically rigorous and also atypical. According to one parent, who requested anonymity for fear of retribution, the school did not hold parent-teacher conferences. The parent said that there was virtually no communication between school administrators and guardians. “They wanted to do it their way and not be challenged by parents along the way,” they said.

Many former students described living in fear of Greer, saying his personality seemed to largely dictate school culture.

One alumnus who requested anonymity for fear of retribution described a man capable of switching between “a very sweet, caring side” and unchecked anger at a moment’s notice. He intimidated adults and adolescents alike.

Still, Greer and his colleagues made a compelling appeal to prospective students and families. Students often came to New Haven from out of state because their hometowns lacked strong Jewish high schools, and he pitched his schools as paragons of adolescent Jewish education. Once they arrived, however, many soon realized that little was typical about the Greer schools.

Several alumni from both the yeshiva and Tikvah stated that they felt school administrators had deliberately recruited students from households characterized by instability. In an interview, R.S.A. — who testified in Greer’s criminal trial and attended the yeshiva in the mid-2000s — said that growing up, he had endured “emotional, physical [and] mental abuse” at home.

“I only agreed to go to a school like [that] so far away from home because I was trying to run away … I was willing to go anywhere,” he said. “Everybody in that school had something they were running away from.”

At the yeshiva, minor infractions were met with time on the green chairs. Teachers sent students to the chairs — located in the lobby of the first floor of the 765 Elm St. building, outside the front office — for the slightest mistakes, so the experience became commonplace. For bigger transgressions, Jake Dressler said, administrators turned to the “Sabbath apartment.” Misbehaving students were forced to spend entire weekends in the Greer-owned apartment, with other students delivering their meals.

School administrators kept a tight grip on their students’ personal lives. They were not allowed to leave campus without permission. They could never walk around New Haven alone. “Secular” possessions, such as radios, were not allowed in the dorms. Former Tikvah student Naomi Klein said that personal belongings frequently went missing from their rooms following random searches conducted by dorm counselors — staff who lived in the dorms.

Students received little respite, only permitted to return home a handful of times each year. Former Tikvah student Sara Rosenberg recounted a situation in which another student requested permission to go home for the high Jewish holidays to support her parents during their impending divorce.

“They told her, ‘If you leave and your parents come get you, you will not be able to come back.’ And she left and was not able to come back,” Rosenberg said.

In some instances, school administrators’ decisions about discipline — or lack thereof — had life-threatening implications for students. During Hack’s July 2016 deposition, prosecutors questioned him about an incident where a yeshiva student was allegedly transported to Yale New Haven Hospital after consuming too much alcohol at Hack’s home. “[Greer] is known for serving alcohol to people who are under age,” Hack said in the deposition.

Rosenberg described another situation in which a classmate went into anaphylactic shock, and Tikvah dorm counselors refused to help her. When the girls took it upon themselves to call 911, they asked the ambulance operators to silence their sirens and dim their lights, but school administrators found out anyway. The next day, the sick student was expelled. Administrators told the Tikvah girls not to tell their parents and removed all phones from the dorms.

“I mean, you’re 14,” Rosenberg said. “[So] it’s a little bit scary that you’re told not to tell your parents stuff that you know happened at school.”

In interviews, former students wrestled with the complicated question of their net experience at the Greer schools. One source said that she got an “amazing education” from Tikvah, a sentiment echoed by several other students.

Still, nearly every student interviewed characterized the school culture as abusive.

“It’s pretty sick and twisted, honestly,” R.S.A. said. “[They would] break you down mentally and emotionally and then they [would] fill the void.”

Greer’s survivors

Jake Dressler and other students recalled taking weekly trips to the swimming pool in Yale’s Payne Whitney Gymnasium during his year at the yeshiva. In the locker room, Jake said, Hack, the chaperone, changed clothes with his students. He said that he “didn’t know adults were allowed to get naked in front of children.”

The behavior fit into a disconcerting pattern of Greer and Hack acting inappropriately with students. Lawrence Dressler, Jake’s father, said that both administrators always “had [their] hands all over” certain boys — an assertion several former students corroborated.

Once, Lawrence said, Hack nibbled on Jake’s ear in a classroom, a statement Jake corroborated and Hack confirmed in a deposition. The younger Dressler said he pulled away from Hack so quickly that the teacher’s teeth left a scratch on his ear.

“We were so young, we were like 13, 14,” Jake said. “It didn’t even cross our minds to tell an adult.”

Moments like these, though, belied a much more alarming trend of sexual abuse of male students, allegedly spanning nearly two decades, traversing state lines and shattering a small but tight-knit community.

To date, three former yeshiva students have publicly accused Greer of sexually abusing them while they were at the school. While only one, Mirlis, has sought legal remedy, both Hack and R.S.A. testified to their abuse at the rabbi’s hands during the civil and criminal proceedings. R.S.A. also described his experience in an interview with the News last year.

In a 2016 deposition taken prior to the civil trial, Hack told attorneys that his relationship with Greer became sexual in the spring of 1991 or 1992, after Greer first inappropriately touched Hack — who was then 16 or 17 — in the basement of a house he owned.

Hack grew up in a house just down the street from the rabbi’s. His parents helped the Greers found the Gan School, and his father, Harold, would serve on the board of directors for the yeshiva for decades. As a boy, Hack said, he had “tremendous respect, reverence, awe” for Greer.

Later in the relationship, the rabbi would allegedly tell Hack that it had been difficult for him to avoid touching his student before his 16th birthday — the age of consent in Connecticut.

Hack told attorneys that sexual encounters between the two took place in Greer-owned properties in the Edgewood neighborhood and in hotels and motels around Connecticut and in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Missouri. Greer often checked into hotels under the name Daniel Green, he said, and paid in cash, wearing a hat to conceal his identity.

“[Over] time it became part of the way life was,” Hack said in a deposition. “You know, I got up in the morning, the sun has this habit, it rises in the east every single day. And [I had] a meeting with Daniel Greer every single week.”

The only weeks without meetings, Hack said, were between the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and also during the Nine Days, when some observant Jews refrain from bathing.

Their relationship allegedly remained sexual for over a dozen years, until Hack married his wife in 2004.

Occasionally, he told prosecutors, he tried to voice his unhappiness to Greer. He described one sexual encounter during which the rabbi asked Hack why he was upset. Hack told him that from a modern-day perspective, students of history understood that World War II had ended in 1945. “But when a person was in the concentration camp in 1943, they didn’t know that the war was going to end in 1945,” Hack said he told the rabbi. “From their perspective, they might have to endure this hell forever. I said I [felt] like that.”

He remembered Greer growing angry. “You compared me to a Nazi.”

Hack said fear deterred him from cutting off the relationship as a student or young adult — fear of Greer’s anger, of the repercussions of his perceived disloyalty. He said he feared “losing [his] specialness” and the potentially negative impact on his family if he fell out of favor with the esteemed rabbi.

“In the grand scheme of things, is it really worth taking everything down, destroying everything over this?” Hack said he asked himself.

By the time his own relationship with Greer ended, Hack said in his deposition, he had been aware of a sexual relationship between the rabbi and Mirlis — then a junior in high school — for at least a year, beginning in the fall of 2003, during his third year working as an administrator at the yeshiva. He said that he “saw all the signs,” that Greer was taking “too much of an interest” in the student.

Still, Hack maintained in his deposition that he wasn’t aware of mandatory reporter laws — which in Connecticut require professionals in contact with children through their line of work to report any suspicion of imminent or ongoing child abuse or neglect — until “a number of years later.”

In the September 2019 criminal trial, prosecutors estimated that Mirlis endured at least 106 instances of abuse between the fall of 2002 and the summer of 2006, when they had a final sexual encounter the year after his graduation.

“That’s what I do with my kids,” prosecutors said Greer told Mirlis after their first encounter at his Elm Street home, during which the rabbi fed Mirlis nuts and wine, kissing him and groping his crotch. “It’s fine. Don’t worry about it.”

Greer’s relationship with Mirlis was well documented by the New Haven Independent, which followed both court cases closely between 2016 and 2019. Witness testimony painted a picture of a dynamic discomfitingly similar to the one allegedly between Greer and Hack — a relationship characterized by psychological manipulation and untold emotional damage wrought on the survivor.

During Greer’s December 2019 sentencing, Senior Assistant State’s Attorney Maxine Wilensky read a statement in court written by Mirlis. Mirlis wrote that he still struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder and will never recover from the abuse Greer inflicted upon him. He wrote that he would happily return the financial settlement if it meant he could “turn back the clock and relive [his] childhood.”

The last instance of sexual abuse Greer has been publicly accused of occurred in 2008. R.S.A. was a 12-year-old freshman at the yeshiva at the time.

“Plausible deniability,” R.S.A. said. “That’s what it started off as.”

He described small instances of touching that could be chalked up to innocent mistakes — an easily denied, accidental brush of the backside, for example.

One evening, he said that Greer invited him to celebrate a minor academic success by taking a walk in Edgewood Park together. He said the rabbi asked his 12-year-old student what he liked to drink: whiskey, vodka, tequila or wine?

Wine, R.S.A. supposed.

The pair sat together on a bench in a moment similar to Mirlis’ first encounter with Greer. Greer fed R.S.A. nuts and wine, and then he attempted to kiss him, R.S.A. alleged.

“It’s kind of shitty when the first kiss you get is an old dude trying to stick his tongue down your throat while you have a mouthful of peanuts,” R.S.A. said.

He said that he did not tell anybody about that night for over two years. The societal norms he grew up with still dictated that it was “the worst thing in the world” to be gay, and he was embarrassed about what had happened. Prior to the incident, Greer had made him feel like he was his favorite student. Like he was special.

Justice served?

On Elm Street, the red brick building stands vacant, leaves of ivy crawling up the walls. It isn’t outwardly obvious that the property ever housed a yeshiva — the building’s edifice still reads “Roger Sherman School” in bold capital letters. Still, if you peer through the window of the locked front door, you can see “Yeshiva of New Haven” etched into an interior entrance.

Today, Greer sits in the Cheshire Correctional Institution, a state prison for men 30 minutes from the yeshiva. He is carrying out a 20-year sentence, to be suspended after serving 12. A federal jury in Hartford ordered Greer in May 2017 to pay $21.7 million following Mirlis’ lawsuit against him. According to Mirlis, he has yet to collect the $15 million in compensatory damages his abuser owes him.

Greer initially faced eight charges in the September 2019 criminal trial: four counts of second-degree sexual assault and four counts of risk of injury to a minor. On the last full day of the trial, however, Superior Court Judge Jon Alandar dropped the sexual assault charges after the defense moved to acquit because they exceeded Connecticut’s five-year statute of limitations.

Two days later, after roughly seven hours of deliberations, a six-person jury returned their verdict: guilty on all counts.

Some of Greer’s staunchest supporters maintained his innocence even after closing arguments. Rabbi Avrohom Notis, who used to run his yeshiva out of Greer’s Elm City facility, told the News during the September trial that it would be a “travesty of justice” for Greer to be convicted.

Still, others familiar with the case expressed relief at the rabbi’s sentence.

“I’m glad that motherfucker’s in jail,” Jake Dressler said.

Now, many are left to reckon with the aftermath of a case that stunned New Haven’s Orthodox Jewish community.

Among many questions that have yet to be answered is whether other adults in the yeshiva’s administration were aware of Greer’s behavior. Dressler said that he was confident the “secular teachers” — part-time instructors who taught English or math — had no idea about the abuse, sexual or emotional, taking place behind the scenes.

A parent of a former yeshiva student said that many in the community feel betrayed by the rabbi, to whom they entrusted their children’s education and well-being. A former student said that the community Greer worked so hard to build has “all [come] tumbling down” with the scandal.

“It was still shocking, it was sad,” Goldman said. “You know, [he] was a golden boy who had so much potential and so much promise.”

In an interview with the News, Mirlis said that he viewed the guilty verdict as a “monumental step” towards finding closure. “[The] goal is for other victims to have the courage to come forward and to hopefully get their day of justice.”


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