Illegal Tunnel under New York City Synagogue Destabilized nearby Buildings, Officials Say

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.

NEW YORK (AP) — The illegal tunnel discovered under a historic Brooklyn synagogue compromised the stability of several structures surrounding the religious complex, prompting an order to vacate as well as citations against its owners, city officials said.

Inspectors with New York City’s building safety agency uncovered a tunnel that was 60 feet (18.3 meters) long and 8 feet (2.4 meters) wide beneath the Chabad-Lubavitch global headquarters in Crown Heights. It connected four buildings owned by the Hasidic group through openings cut into basement walls.

The excavation work was done without the approval of the Department of Buildings, agency spokesperson Andrew Rudansky said in an email to The Associated Press on Wednesday. He said the tunnel was empty except for dirt, tools and debris.

The findings came after a two-day investigation into the structural stability of the complex, an internationally revered Hasidic Jewish center that became the site of a brawl Monday between police and worshippers seeking to defend the tunnel.

The chaotic standoff brought public attention to a long-simmering split within the community related to the dynasty’s longtime leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died in 1994. Those who supported the construction of the tunnel said they believe Schneerson is the messiah, that he is still alive and that he supports an expansion of the synagogue. The messianic view is rejected by Chabad’s administrators.

Rabbi Motti Seligson, a spokesperson for Chabad, said the underground passage was built by a group of “young agitators” seeking unauthorized access to the synagogue. When Chabad officials attempted to seal the openings on Monday, worshippers inside the tunnel refused to leave until they were dragged out by police.

Nine people were arrested, including some who used crowbars to rip off the synagogue’s wood paneling, according to a police report.

Levi Huebner, an attorney for five of the men arrested, said his clients may have suffered from a “little naivete,” but had no intention of harming the building structurally.

“I’m 100% confident they wouldn’t go near anything, do anything to disrupt the foundation of the synagogue in any way whatsoever,” Huebner said.

City inspectors said the excavation had undermined the stability of two single-story structures behind the synagogue. An adjacent two-story brick building containing offices and lecture halls used by Chabad was also ordered vacated due to the illegal removal of fire-rated walls in the building’s cellar. They said the building containing the synagogue was not destabilized. It remains closed to worshippers.

Rudansky said the department has cited the synagogue for the illegal excavation work that created the tunnel, but confirmed that the owners are taking the appropriate steps to fix it.

On Wednesday night, construction crews began pouring concrete into the passage, Seligson said.

“This episode has been deeply painful for us and the entire Jewish community,” he said. “We look forward to the sanctity of the synagogue being restored and its light continuing to emanate to the world.”