9 arrested after secret tunnel found under NYC synagogue. What is going on?

Click to play video: 'Secret tunnel in NYC synagogue leads to 9 arrests, brawl between police and worshippers'
Secret tunnel in NYC synagogue leads to 9 arrests, brawl between police and worshippers
WATCH: Secret tunnel in NYC synagogue leads to 9 arrests, brawl between police and worshippers – Jan 11, 2024

A historic Brooklyn synagogue was the site of a bizarre brawl between members of an influential Hasidic Jewish movement and police after a secret underground tunnel was found beneath the premises.

The secret tunnel was discovered underneath the global headquarters of the Chabad-Lubavitcher movement at 770 Eastern Pkwy. in Crown Heights. It appears the tunnel was first uncovered by religious leaders late last year, according to local media reports, and has caused a schism in the community between those who support the tunnel and those who do not.

The tunnel is believed to have been dug by students and young men in the community in a bid to expand the synagogue and annex additional space in the basement of an empty apartment building behind the headquarters, according to reporting by the New York Times and The Associated Press.

When Chabad leaders called in a cement truck on Monday afternoon to seal up the passageway’s opening, supporters of the tunnel staged an impromptu protest to block the effort. The ensuing conflict turned violent as police moved in.

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Nine people between the ages of 19 and 22 were ultimately arrested on charges that included criminal mischief, reckless endangerment and obstructing governmental administration, according to police. Another three received summonses for disorderly conduct.

New York police officers arrest a Hasidic Jewish student after he was removed from a breach in the wall of the synagogue that led to a tunnel dug by students, Monday, Jan. 8, 2024, in New York. Bruce Schaff via AP

Videos and photos of the skirmish showed a large, gaping hole in the concrete wall of a prayer space, leading to the tunnel. Wooden panels covering the concrete wall had been ripped off.

A number of young men were filmed sitting in the tunnel’s opening, seemingly to prevent the passageway from being filled in. Large wooden benches had also been moved to block police from moving into the tunnel.

Hasidic Jewish students sit behind a breach in the wall of a synagogue that led to a tunnel dug by the students, Monday, Jan. 8, 2024, in New York. Bruce Schaff via AP

For several hours, police pleaded with the young men to leave the entrance to the tunnel, according to witnesses. After they refused, the officers covered the area with a white curtain and entered the dusty crevasse with zip ties to detain the protesters.

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“When they took the first person out with zip ties, that’s when the outburst happened,” said Baruch Dahan, a 21-year-old studying at the synagogue who videotaped the congregants fighting. “Almost everyone was against what they did, but as soon as people saw the handcuffs, there was confusion and pushing.”

Footage posted to social media shows scores of onlookers, mostly young men, jeering at the NYPD’s community affairs officers. Some lifted wooden desks into the air, sending prayer books scattering. In response, an officer appeared to deploy an irritating spray to disperse the group.

Hasidic Jewish students riot against New York police officers who were called to inspect a secret tunnel dug under the synagogue by students, Monday, Jan. 8, 2024, in New York. Bruce Schaff via AP

The Chabad-Lubavitcher headquarters remains closed as the New York City Department of Buildings continues to investigate the illicit tunnel.

The tunnel measures 60 feet long (18.3 metres), eight feet wide (2.4 metres) and five feet high (1.5 metres). It runs underneath several buildings in the vicinity of the headquarters.

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City inspectors and police officers outside the Brooklyn borough, N.Y., headquarters of the Chabad movement, Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024. AP Photo/Jake Offenhartz

Emergency work orders have been issued to stabilize the historic synagogue as well as neighbouring buildings.

Two single-storey buildings were damaged by the tunnel construction and have orders to be partially vacated due to “structural stability issues at both buildings.” Another two-storey brick building behind the synagogue was issued a full vacate order “after it was determined that fire-rated walls were removed at the cellar and on the first floor.”

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Rabbi Motti Seligson, a spokesperson for Chabad, characterized the tunnel as a rogue act of vandalism committed by a group of misguided young men, and condemned the “extremists who broke through the wall to the synagogue, vandalizing the sanctuary, in an effort to preserve their unauthorized access.”

Those who supported the tunnel, meanwhile, said they were carrying out an “expansion” plan long envisioned by the former head of the Chabad movement, Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died in 1994.

The conflict in the Chabad community on the subject of the tunnel underscores a 30-year dispute concerning Schneerson’s death. The mainstream Chabad leadership is committed to carrying out the rebbe’s teachings, but a small sect within the movement claims the rebbe is the Messiah and never actually died.

It appears the young men who dug the tunnel believe the rebbe is still alive. The New York Times reports that those who subscribe to these messianic beliefs refer to Schneerson in the present tense.

“That’s what the rabbi wants, that’s what everybody wants,” said Zalmy Grossman, a 21-year-old Brooklyn resident. He said the tunnel project began late last year as a way to connect the synagogue with “the whole empty space” behind it.

Chabad leaders declined to say when they discovered the underground connection., but several worshippers said word of the tunnel’s existence had spread through the community in recent weeks.

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News of the tunnel was first reported in December 2023. According to a report by the Jewish Press, it was discovered by plumbers, who had been commissioned to lay a waterline while they were excavating under the Chabad headquarters.

An architect, engineer and contractor have been hired by the owners of the building to shore up the rudimentary tunnel, as mandated by the Department of Buildings.

The synagogue has also been cited for the illegal excavation work without a permit.

— With files from The Associated Press

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