An illegal tunnel beneath one of the most important religious sites in New York City was about 60 feet long and 8 feet across and was not sufficiently reinforced, compromising the stability of parts of two buildings, city officials said Wednesday.
Inspectors from the Department of Buildings ordered the owners of 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, the global headquarters of the Chabad-Lubavitcher Hasidic movement, to fortify the structure and temporarily vacate parts of the buildings, and issued citations against Lubavitcher leaders who own the synagogue for two violations of work conducted without a permit.
The department also ordered a nearby two-story building on Kingston Avenue to be vacated because of fire concerns after investigators found walls had been removed.
Officials have been investigating the structural stability of the synagogue, a complex of interconnected buildings in Crown Heights often referred to simply as 770, since chaos erupted there on Monday afternoon. A group of students who wanted to maintain the rogue tunnel between 770 and at least one adjacent building protested the arrival of a cement truck that had been called in to fill the tunnel.
Some students used crowbars to try to damage a wall of a prayer space that led to the tunnel, sat in the open wall to try to prevent it from being filled and skirmished with police officers who had been called in, according to legal documents and videos from the scene.
Nine of the men were arrested at the scene on Monday evening, and five were arraigned. Two were charged with criminal mischief and obstructing governmental administration, and the other three were charged with obstructing police officers’ work. All five were released without bail. A court order prohibits them from altering or excavating beneath the Lubavitcher headquarters.
The tunnel, which The Jewish Press reported was first discovered late last year, is burrowed beneath buildings adjacent to 770, which are also owned by the Lubavitcher movement.
“Our investigation has found that a single linear underground tunnel (approximately 60 feet long, 8 feet wide and with a ceiling height of 5 feet) had been illegally excavated underneath a single-story extension,” the city inspectors’ report said.
“The underground tunnel was constructed without approval and permits,” the inspectors’ report continued. “The tunnel was found to have inadequate rudimentary shoring in place, and wall openings had been created in several areas of the adjacent buildings at the basement levels.”
A spokesman for the Lubavitcher movement, Rabbi Motti Seligson, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Wednesday night.
It was not clear when the buildings would be deemed safe to occupy, but the department said the owner had hired professionals to do the emergency repairs. Any long-term closure of 770 is likely to prove intensely disruptive to the many Lubavitchers, including local residents and visitors, who frequently worship there.
The young men who were arrested, who are in their late teens or early 20s, were not charged with crimes related to the creation of the tunnel, said their lawyer, Levi Huebner. He described them as students who were driven by activism.
“Students can get a little bit enthused once in a while,” he said. “We see that going on on campuses all across the country.”
Details are still emerging about how the tunnel was built and exactly what its constructors hoped to accomplish. But it is clear that the people who built it, and those who support its creation, have been acting in open defiance of the mainstream Lubavitcher leadership.
The central conflict within the Lubavitcher movement dates back 30 years, to the death of the movement’s leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, known as the rebbe. The movement split between the more mainstream leadership, who believed the rebbe had died and the movement’s goal was to carry out his teachings, and those who thought that the rebbe was in fact the Messiah and had not died. The rebbe has never been replaced.
That rift still animates conflict within the movement today, and conversations with Hasidic community members indicated that the men who built the tunnel were probably messianists who felt that expanding the sanctuary was the proper way to respect the rebbe’s wishes.
News of the chaos at 770 made international news this week, and was quickly seized upon by some social media users to spread antisemitic conspiracy theories.