What is Chabad? The group at the centre of the NYC tunnels story

Viral videos have prompted questions about the group embroiled in broiges after tunnels found under world headquarters in New York


10/05/2023, New York-Brooklyn, United States. Sukkot is a week-long Jewish holiday that celebrates the fall harvest. It is one of the most joyful festivals in Judaism, meant to bring families, friends, and communities together. The holiday also commemorates the 40 years that Jews spent in the desert after escaping slavery in Egypt. The Chabad-Lubavitch World Headquarters is located on Eastern Parkway in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, New York, in the United States. The building is the center of the Chabad-Lubavitch world movement and is considered by many to be an iconic site in Judaism. (Photo by Nikita Payusov / Middle East Images / Middle East Images via AFP) (Photo by NIKITA PAYUSOV/Middle East Images/AFP via Getty Images)

Chabad or Chabad Lubavitch as they are sometimes known is an Orthodox CChasidic group named after a town in Russia where the movement was centred in the 19th century.

Today Chabad’s global headquarters are situated in Brooklyn, New York City on 770 Eastern Parkway, which is under the spotlight after local residents started hearing sounds in the walls surrounding the building.

Videos of Charedim climbing out of drains went viral much to the shock and curiosity of the world. 

It turned out that a group of “young agitators”, according to Chabad Chairman Yehuda Krinsky, had been digging a tunnel underneath 770 Eastern Parkway, the global headquarters of Chabad.

Reasons for the tunnel digging remain unclear and the Chabad movement and NYPD took steps to close them off.

But viral videos have prompted questions about who the movement are and much of the commentary around the story has been antisemitic.

Unlike many of the more observant groups Chabad’s aim is to be approachable and look outward to the wider and non-religious Jewish world to engage them in Jewish life and identity.

It is one of the largest CChasidic groups as well as one of the largest Jewish religious organizations in the world.

Which is why you wouldn’t be surprised to find a Chabad house in far-flung corners of the world.

From London to Jamaica and Bangkok you can nearly always find a friendly Chabad couple keen to welcome Jews in for a Friday night dinner or seder meal.

Chabad is unlike other strictly orthodox groups in that rather than shy away from modern technology and communication it embraces both with the goal of connecting Jews to their identity and faith.

This is why in part that they have a significant presence on university campuses in the US and the UK. Chabad’s aim is to keep Jewish students connected to Jewish life and community when they are far away from home.

According to the website My Jewish Learning there are nearly 5000 Chabad emissaries all over the world, known as shluchim.

And Chabad is known to operate 3,500 Chabad institutions in some 100 countries as well as having a presence in all 50 US states.

Chabad houses are typically run by a married couple who engage in activities such as offering classes or prayer services, cooking meals, or simply helping local Jews put up a mezuzah.

The origins of Chabad

The group was established in 1775 in what is now Belarus by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi other wise known as the Alter Rebbe.

Zalman, is described by Chabad as a child prodigy, writing Torah commentary by the age of 8 and earning the title rabbi by age 12.

He wrote the Tanya which was first published 1796 and is considered an early work of Chasidic philosophy.

His works covers the depth of Jewish thought from mysticism, philosophy, psychology, ethics, and law.

Zalman was a follower of Dov Ber of Mezeritch, the chief disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, who founded the Chasidic movement.

In Czarist and Communist Russia, the leaders of Chabad faced persecution in their pursuit of Torah Judaism.

According to it was after the Holocaust, under the direction of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchaak Schneerson and his successor, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, that the group became a global movement.

The group says: “Chabad is influenced by the teaching of the Baal Shem Tov, a great Jew of 18th-century Eastern Europe who loved his people with an immeasurable passion.

“The calamities of his time had created a situation in which there were many simple Jews who had no learning and little knowledge, alongside great scholars who looked askance at the ignorance of these commoners. The Baal Shem Tov taught us to look deeper, beyond the knowledge of a person, beyond his outward behaviour, into the depths of his heart, to find there the divine spark and reveal it with unconditional love.”

The approach of Chabad today mirrors that of the Baal Shem Tov.

Chabad encourages its shluchim to engage Jews that are not as involved in Jewish life and learning.

Chabad says: “Don’t argue with him. Instead, be one with him. Unconditionally. You enjoy Shabbat—enjoy it with him. You find solace and counsel in the wisdom of Torah—talk to your holy brothers and sisters about that wisdom in their own language, on their own terms. And if he or she does not change one iota, that is irrelevant. You have done your job of love. Two Jews became one and that is all that matters.”

Chabad Houses around the world exist for this purpose and as a result do not operate a typical synagogue membership scheme.

They do not typically charge membership and rely on donations from the community to thrive and function.

In many ways, Chabad are similar to other Chasidic groups but some differences set them apart.

For example, Chabad men largely wear fedoras while other Chasidic groups typically wear some fur-lined hats.

Chabad men are also known to wear two pairs of tefillin each morning while typically others only wear one.

Before the viral tunnel episode, the 770 Eastern Parkway headquarters were probably best known as the location of Chabad’s annual multi-day conference, known as the International Conference of Shluchim.

Each winter, thousands of Chabad emissaries from around the world gather in New York for a visually striking annual photo.

The photo of Chabad rabbis has been happening since 1984 has grown over the years.

A spererate photo of Chabad women happens in Feburary. 

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