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Secret Tunnels Under New York Synagogue Lead to Police Brawl

Several arrests made after secret tunnels discovered under Brooklyn synagogue.

arrests made at synagogue after secret tunnels brawl
Fighting broke out at the synagogue after police were called. Credit: Associated Press / Bruce Schaff / YouTube

The NYPD were called to a Brooklyn synagogue this week after a dispute over secret tunnels built by some of the community. Nine men between 19 and 22 were arrested after a group refused to leave the tunnel and had to be forcibly removed.

Who built the tunnels?

The story starts with a small group of young men of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. A significant Hasidic Jewish tradition that has a global influence, it originated in a synagogue in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

The building receives thousands of visitors a year from the international religious community as well as students and tourists. It was the home of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who founded the Chabad movement and led it until his death in 1994. He is largely responsible for the revival of the Hasidic community after the Holocaust, leading his group for over 40 years.

Rabbi Motti Seligson, a spokesperson for Chabad, was keen to emphasize this group did not act for the congregation as a whole. He called them: “extremists who broke through the wall to the synagogue, vandalizing the sanctuary, in an effort to preserve their unauthorized access.”

” (they) secretly broken through the walls of vacant building behind the headquarters, creating an underground passage beneath a row of office buildings and lecture halls that eventually connected to the synagogue”

Rabbi Motti Seligson, spokesperson for the Chabad-Lubavitch movement

Why did this happen?

The purpose of the tunnels has been the subject of some debate online, with many conspiracy theories doing the rounds – a lot of them anti-semitic. The group of young men who built the tunnels claimed to be carrying out an expansion plan envisioned by Schneerson. They think the synagogue is overcrowded and should be expanded, but official channels are taking too long.

Zalmy Grossman, a 21-year-old from the area, called the expansion “what the rabbi wants… what everybody wants,” He said the tunnel project was started as a way of connecting the synagogue with “the whole empty space” behind it. A group known as the Messianic Chasidim believes that Schneerson is still alive, so it is possible the tunnel-builders believe themselves to be acting under his instruction.

How did the police get involved?

The leaders of the synagogue have not declared exactly when they found out about the tunnels, though rumors suggest news had spread through the community in recent weeks. The fire department received an anonymous tip-off a few weeks ago but didn’t find anything irregular during an inspection.

In any case, a cement truck arrived on Monday to seal the tunnels up. That’s when a group of men got into the tunnels and refused to leave for the construction workers. They even began tearing at the walls of the synagogue, prompting the leaders to call the police.

When the NYPD turned up, the men still refused to leave the tunnel, with the police eventually leading them out with their hands zip-tied together. According to eyewitness Baruch Dahan, that’s when things really kicked off:

““Almost everyone was against what they did, but as soon as people saw the handcuffs there was confusion and pushing.”

Baruch Dahan, witness to the events at the synagogue

Fighting broke out, ultimately leading to nine arrests on charges of criminal mischief, criminal damage and obstructing a government organization. The building was closed that night by the Department of Buildings, pending further inspection.

Written By

I'm in my final year at the University of Oxford, studying English. I'm interested in all kinds of writing, from theatre reviewing to covering current affairs, with a particular focus on Gen Z's engagement with politics and popular culture.

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