street fights

The Clash Over a Secret Tunnel Under a Brooklyn Synagogue

It’s causing a huge fight in the Chabad-Lubavitch movement — and destabilized two buildings.

Members of the Chabad-Lubavitch community and NYPD officers on January 8. Photo: Exclusive to New York Magazine
Members of the Chabad-Lubavitch community and NYPD officers on January 8. Photo: Exclusive to New York Magazine

There is a secret tunnel beneath 770 Eastern Parkway, the Crown Heights headquarters of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. The news of a secret tunnel is kind of stunning on its own, but things took a chaotic turn on Monday when a cement truck called in by Chabad leadership arrived to fill it and the tunnel’s architects, a small group of young Lubavitchers, attempted to stop them by breaking through a wall of the synagogue and occupying the hole. The standoff ended when police hauled the men out — nine arrests were made, according to the New York Times. After the fracas, the synagogue was shut down pending a structural safety review. Now, there is a huge fight happening between the people who dug the secret tunnel and the people who are upset that there is a secret tunnel, which is basically everyone else.

Here’s everything we know.

Who was digging the tunnel?

A group of young students had been secretly digging for months, according to reports. Chabad has referred to the diggers as “extremist students” who seem to have been studying at Lubavitch headquarters. At the standoff on Monday, the Jewish news site ColLive reported that the men, many of whom are reportedly from Israel, were wearing Meshichist yarmulkes and pins identifying them as followers of a Messianic sect that believes the late Lubavitch leader Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, also known as the Rebbe, is the Messiah. (Also, they believe that he did not die in 1994 but lives on.) A different group, Agudath Chasidei Chabad, which does not believe the Rebbe to be the Messiah, controls 770 Eastern Parkway, the Rebbe’s former home.

However, while Agudath Chasidei Chabad won the legal battle over ownership of the Lubavitch headquarters more than a decade ago, the synagogue itself is still controlled by another rival group, Beis Chayeinu, and continues to be contested territory.

How was the tunnel discovered?

A homeowner on nearby Union Street had been hearing weird noises at night for some time and mentioned them to someone at the center. Then plumbers laying a waterline trench near 770 came across a section of the tunnel. The men seem to have been hiding their work for months by using a separate, empty building — a defunct mikvah, a ritual bath, in a separate and unaffiliated building at the corner of Union Street and Kingston Avenue. In December, Chabad investigated and found the tunnel.

How long is the tunnel, and where does it go?

The tunnel allegedly runs from a defunct mikvah, a ritual bath, in a separate and unaffiliated building at the corner of Union Street and Kingston Avenue to the 770 Eastern Parkway complex, stopping underneath the women’s section of the synagogue at 784 Eastern Parkway, which would make it maybe half a block long. A city inspector’s report found it was five feet high, eight feet wide, and approximately 60 feet long. After the tunnel was discovered, leaders, concerned about structural damage, closed off the women’s section and started investigating options to seal it, according to Crown Heights Info, a site covering the local Jewish community.

However, one person from the community said the effort, though clandestine, was far more professional than it seemed — there were financial backers as well as professional engineers and contractors involved. The New York Post, meanwhile, reported that the students took up a collection to hire migrant workers, who also stayed in a vacant building for the duration of three weeks while they did the clandestine work.

But … why?

The young men wanted to expand 770 Eastern Parkway. (It was, apparently, eventually supposed to look something like this.) It’s a site of huge importance in the Lubavitch community. (It’s been described as the closest thing to holy ground in Brooklyn for Hasidim.) The building, which was acquired by the Lubavitch movement in the 1940s, is part of a complex with a yeshiva and synagogue, and is a destination for thousands of visitors a year. The structure itself is considered so meaningful that replicas have been built all over the world.

One man told the AP that the diggers believed they were fulfilling the expansionist wishes of Rabbi Schneerson by connecting the synagogue with the empty space behind it: “That’s what the rabbi wanted, that’s what everybody wants.” On X, a Chabad spokesperson wrote that the men “broke through a few walls in adjacent properties to the synagogue at 784-788 Eastern Parkway, to provide them unauthorized access.”

The Chabad Lubavitch World Headquarters in Brooklyn, pictured on Jan. 9, 2023. Photo: New York Daily News/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

One young community member says that the tunnel was beside the point — it was just a means to expand the synagogue and haul out dirt. The real project was digging out a large enough space off the synagogue to seat hundreds more people.

He adds that the synagogue is so overcrowded during Rosh Hashanah that people routinely faint and ambulances have to be stationed outside. Expanding the synagogue was not just a spiritual issue, but also a safety issue. So some Israeli students decided to dig out a cavern big enough for an additional 600 worshippers, a project the community member claims was “so close” to completion that “if they put in tiles and doors, it would be like 85 percent done.”

Did the tunnel affect the structures it ran under?

Yes, it did. City officials found that it was not sufficiently reinforced and compromised the stability of two buildings, according to the Times.

What happened when Chabad tried to have the tunnel filled?

Mayhem. Videos show the young men shouting, flipping over furniture, and breaking down the walls of the synagogue to climb into the tunnel. One was filmed crawling out of a sewer grate.

Local Jewish leaders have condemned the tunnel-digging. Rabbi Yosef Braun, of the Crown Heights Beis Din, railed against “people who think they know better than everybody else in every single matter are just destroying and demolishing and destroying physical structures, destroying spiritual structures.”

“It is a juvenile fantasy to think that a dug out, 450-square-foot, five-foot-high crawl space is some kind of grand synagogue expansion,” says Rabbi Motti Seligson, the spokesman of Chabad-Lubavitch. “In furthering their delusions, these young agitators demolished a potentially load-bearing wall, desecrated the synagogue, and engaged in violence. There is no justification, theological or otherwise, for such behavior.”

What’s next?

The synagogue has been temporarily closed, concrete has been poured to strengthen damaged walls, and the tunnel is being filled in. But one community member says that dealing with the situation has actually made the two factions fighting for control of 770 come together for the first time in 30 years. There’s hope that the expansion — properly planned and permitted — might happen after all.

This story is developing, and will be updated accordingly.

The Secret Tunnel Under a Synagogue on Eastern Parkway