Several men arrested after dispute over secret tunnel in Brooklyn synagogue

Brawl erupted between police and those who created passageway and wanted it to remain at Chabad-Lubavitch headquarters

A group of men belonging to a Hasidic Jewish community in New York were arrested on Monday amid a dispute over an illegal tunnel secretly dug into the side of a historic synagogue, which has since been closed.

Action by law enforcement after the tunnel came to light led to a brawl between police and those who had created the passageway and wanted it to remain.

The Chabad-Lubavitch world headquarters, located in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood in New York City, was in chaos on Tuesday as Jewish leaders and police faced off against what Rabbi Motti Seligson, a spokesperson for the Chabad, called a “group of extremist students”.

A group of Hasidic Jewish men were arrested on 8 January amid a dispute over a secret tunnel built beneath the historic Brooklyn synagogue.
A group of Hasidic Jewish men were arrested on 8 January 2024 amid a dispute over a secret tunnel built beneath a historic Brooklyn synagogue. Photograph: Bruce Schaff/AP

The building was once home to the Orthodox Jewish movement’s leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, and draws thousands of visitors each year. Schneerson led the Chabad-Lubavitch for more than four decades before his death in 1994, reinvigorating a Hasidic religious community that had been devastated by the Holocaust.

Seligson said the rebel students from within the movement had “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”.

A construction crew was brought in on Monday to fix the damaged walls but was met with protests from the students who had created the tunnel.

“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,” Seligson said.

The reason for the tunnel’s creation remains undisclosed.

A New York police department (NYPD) spokesperson said officers were called to the building on Monday afternoon to respond to a disorderly group that was trespassing and damaging a wall.

The Chabad-Lubavitch world headquarters in Brooklyn.
The Chabad-Lubavitch world headquarters in Brooklyn. Photograph: Anadolu/Getty Images

Those allegedly responsible for constructing the tunnel were arrested for criminal mischief and criminal trespass, and for obstructing governmental administration, according to a spokesperson for the NYPD.

City inspectors were called to the site to conduct an emergency structural inspection. During the inspection, police officers stood behind barricades surrounding the headquarters, blocking a line of young men who wanted to enter the building.

An anonymous tip about the location had been sent to the New York City fire department last month, but when a fire prevention team responded, all exits were found to be operable and up to code, according to Amanda Farinacci, a spokesperson for the agency.

The NYPD has said the building is now closed pending a structural safety review by city inspectors.

The Associated Press contributed reporting

Updated: —