Three weeks ago, a New York resident started hearing sounds in his walls. Unlike most people who begin to hear sounds in his walls, he wasn’t imagining it.
A small group of “young agitators”, according to Chabad Chairman Yehuda Krinsky, had been digging a tunnel underneath 770 Eastern Parkway, the global headquarters of Chabad. The tunnels were discovered and the Chabad movement took steps to close them off.
Last night, the situation escalated. Videos across social media showed the interiors of the Chabad house being torn apart, revealing a tunnel entryway that yeshiva students occupied, claiming they wanted to study there. A Hasidic man clambered out of what appeared to be a sewer system around the corner from the house. And a hapless police officer was recorded telling the Lubavitchers he wanted to “shut down the whole shul”.
As with many Jewish issues, tunnel-gate began with an internal dispute. 770 Eastern Parkway is the former home of the the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yizchock Schneerson, and an iconic site for the Chabad movement. During the 1940s, the building became the HQ of Chabad, serving as a shul, yeshiva, and the home of successive Rabbis. Now, it attracts thousands of visitors from across the world each year. The issue is, nobody can agree on who owns it.
For decades, 770 has been caught up in a legal dispute between Agudath Chasidei Chabad (effectively, the Chabad-Lubavitch movement), and a sect of Messianic Chasidim, who not only believe that the last Rebbe who died in 1994 is the Messiah, but that he is still physically alive. In 2006, a lawsuit ruled that Chabad had full ownership over 770, but those who believe in the Messiahship of the Rebbe won’t let go of what they see as their Temple.
About six months ago, it appears that a group of yeshiva students associated with the messianic movement began to dig tunnels, connecting the synagogue with an unused mikvah to gain unauthorised access to 770.
When the Chabad authorities learned of the illegal tunnel network, which could have threatened the integrity of the buildings above it, they called in a cement truck to fill in the tunnels. It was the arrival of the truck, which began pouring cement into the open tunnel network, that caused the chaos.
In the resulting conflict, at least 10 arrests were made by the NYPD, who evacuated the shul and locked the doors yesterday evening. The tunnels are now being filled in.
Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, Chairman of Chabad, said: “These odious actions will be investigated, and the sanctity of the synagogue will be restored”. He also gave thanks to the NYPD for their “professionalism and sensitivity”.
Motti Seligson, Director of Media at Chabad, confirmed that the “extremist students” have been arrested, and that 770 will be closed “pending a structural safety review”. He described the events of last night as “deeply distressing to the Lubavitch movement, and the Jewish community worldwide”. “We hope and pray to be able to expeditiously restore the sanctity and decorum of this holy place,” he continued.