NEW YORK (RNS) — Nine rabbinical students were arrested Monday (Jan. 8) for thwarting the filling of a tunnel illegally dug through the walls of a synagogue below the Brooklyn headquarters of the Chabad-Lubavitch Movement International’s headquarters into an adjacent building.
Videos shared on social media show clashes between the students and New York police officers as they force some individuals wearing traditional Hasidic garb out of a breach in the wall. Another clip shows a man coming out of a sidewalk sewer drain said to be connected to the underground passage.
The tussles were reportedly prompted by the arrival of a cement truck sent to repair the breach in the synagogue walls.
The building, at 770 Eastern Parkway in the Crown Heights neighborhood, is the former home of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn. His son-in-law, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who led the Chabad-Lubavitch movement until his death in 1994, installed his office in the building. Since Schneerson’s death, the building has served as the offices of the movement, an Orthodox Jewish Hasidic dynasty established in Russia in the late 18th century. Its leaders relocated to the U.S. after the Holocaust.
According to the Haredi news outlet collive.com, the students who attempted to dig the tunnel were part of the movement’s messianic branch, whose members believe Schneerson is the Jewish Messiah. As they attempted to obstruct the cement workers, some students wore “Meshichist” yarmulkes bearing the slogan: “Long Live our Master, Teacher and Rabbi, King Messiah, Forever and Ever.”
In recent months, students of the messianic branch have attracted attention for posting bright yellow and blue flyers with Schneerson’s face reading “Messiah is here!” on New York’s crossing signal boxes at intersections.
The digging in the basement-level synagogue was reportedly aimed at connecting it to Union Mikvah, a facility for women’s ritual purification located around the corner, but it’s not clear why the students wanted to connect them.
“Those efforts were disrupted by the extremists who broke through the wall to the synagogue, vandalizing the sanctuary, in an effort to preserve their unauthorized access,” wrote Rabbi Motti Seligson, the movement’s spokesman, in a statement.
The synagogue has now been closed for a structural safety review, the first time the building has closed since COVID-19. Tuesday morning, NYPD officers guarded the synagogue’s entrance as students and curious onlookers lingered outside.
The tunnel was discovered in December, though it is unclear when work on it began. Undated video on the Instagram page of CrownHeights.info, a Hasidic website, leads the viewer through the tunnel, starting in an unused room at Union Mikvah filled with cardboard boxes and ending in the 770 Eastern Parkway synagogue.
Monday’s dispute is the latest episode in a multidecade battle over ownership of the building and over who has the right to manage the headquarters and the adjacent building at 784-788 Eastern Parkway.
The Chabad movement owns 784-788 Eastern Parkway but does not own the underground synagogue, which spans both buildings.
“Lubavitch officials have attempted to gain proper control of the premises through the New York State court system; unfortunately, despite consistently prevailing in court, the process has dragged on for years,” wrote Seligson.
Monday’s chaotic scenes shocked members of the Chabad-Lubavitch community, who regard the synagogue as deeply sacred.
In a statement shared on X, Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, the community’s chairman, condemned the “vandalism of a group of young agitators” and vowed that their “odious actions will be investigated, and the sanctity of the synagogue will be restored.”
In an audio recording published on CrownHeights.info, Rabbi Yosef Braun, a member of the Crown Heights rabbinical court, said, “Whose hand did not shake and tremble when they touched those walls- when they hammer to those walls?” before adding, “It is as painful as can be.”