A decades-old fight about the direction of one of New York’s most prominent Hasidic Jewish groups tipped into chaos this week, when a faction of the group clashed with the police over a tunnel that had secretly been built to the movement’s main synagogue, one of the most significant religious sites in the city.
The tunnel, a passageway between the headquarters of the group, the Chabad-Lubavitcher movement, and at least one adjacent property, was first discovered late last year, according to local news reports. But on Monday afternoon, after a cement truck was brought in to fill it, some Hasidic men attempted to block that effort.
The police were called, and officers said they found a group of men breaking through a wall of the prayer space that led to the tunnel. After a resulting confrontation, which included skirmishes with officers, nine people were arrested, according to the Brooklyn district attorney’s office.
Motti Seligson, a Lubavitcher spokesman, described those who had created the tunnel as a group of “extremist students.”
“This is, obviously, deeply distressing to the Lubavitch movement, and the Jewish community worldwide,” he said in a written statement.
The conflict took place at 770 Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, the movement’s global headquarters, which is often referred to simply as 770.
It is not yet known exactly who built the tunnel, how they did so, or what they hoped to accomplish. But two men who said they spoke with some of those who broke through the synagogue wall said the motive was to hasten an expansion of 770 — a move that they say the Lubavitcher movement’s leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, known as the rebbe, called for more than three decades ago.
The desired expansion is a part of a conflict over the future of the movement that stretches back at least 30 years.
The Hasidic group has been reckoning with an internal dispute since the rebbe died in 1994. No successor has ever been named.
Mainstream Lubavitcher leadership is committed to carrying out the rebbe’s teachings and vision. But a smaller faction within the movement claims that the rebbe is in fact the Messiah, and some in that group believe he never actually died. Legal disputes about the role of 770 — including whether a plaque on an adjacent building could refer to the rebbe as deceased — have dragged on for years.
Conversations with Hasidic community members and reports in the local Hasidic press indicated that a group of messianic students were probably responsible for building the tunnel, which they believe is a way to respect the Lubavitcher rebbe, whom they speak of in the present tense.
“They did it to expand 770 and make it bigger,” said a man who gave his name as Zalmy Grossman and said he knows some of those arrested. “They have come to fulfill the rebbe’s wishes.”
Omri Rahamim Bahar, 22, has been studying at 770 since he arrived in New York from Israel four years ago. He said that fellow community members grew frustrated with leaders’ inaction in expanding the building to address crowding during worship. So, he said, some began to take matters into their own hands, in part by creating a tunnel from an adjacent building that leads toward the wall of the sanctuary.
After the cement truck arrived at 770 on Monday, some of the men decided to break into the sanctuary from inside the tunnel. A video showed at least one man emerging from the tunnel caked in dust to cheers from supporters.
“Of course it’s hard, and it doesn’t feel good to see the main wall of the sanctuary with a hole in it, but I know there is no other way,” Mr. Bahar said.
Videos taken Monday from inside the building showed tumultuous scenes, with mostly young Hasidic men sitting in the tunnel, seemingly to try to prevent it from being filled.
Videos and photos also showed some Hasidic men prying wooden panels off walls, and groups of men using large benches to physically block the police from intervening and then skirmishing with officers, before one officer appeared to use some kind of spray to disperse the crowd.
News of the chaos quickly spread on social media, and eventually devolved into a proliferation of antisemitic social media posts on X, in particular.
Shmuel Spielman entered the sanctuary on Monday night to say his evening prayers. Soon after entering, he saw “a commotion,” he said, describing a scene of a handful of young men — some of whom he recognized — breaking through the wall. “This is where the rebbe davened,” Mr. Spielman said, using a Yiddish term for prayer. “I find it very upsetting.”
Knowing that the sanctuary would be closed in the morning, he gathered his prayer materials and arranged to meet at the home of another member of the community on Tuesday for morning service. He came by 770 midday on Tuesday to find out if the building had yet reopened. It had not, so he prepared to head to a large white tent that sheltered those who wished to pray outside the building.
A spokesman for the city Department of Buildings said inspectors were still on site at 770 on Tuesday evening and were investigating the structural integrity of the building following the damage.
Jonah Markowitz and Chelsia Rose Marcius contributed reporting.