Secret tunnel in US synagogue leads to brawl between police and worshippers

Hasidic Jewish worshippers arrested after discovery of tunnel secretly dug in New York City.

Secret tunnel in US synagogue leads to brawl between police and worshippers Getty Images

A group of Hasidic Jewish worshippers have been arrested amid a dispute over a tunnel secretly dug into the side of a historic synagogue in New York City, setting off a brawl between police and those who tried to defend the makeshift passageway.

The discovery of the tunnel at the Chabad-Lubavitch world headquarters in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, prompted an emergency structural inspection by the city on Tuesday.

The building at 770 Eastern Parkway was once home to the movement’s leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, and draws thousands of visitors each year.

Its Gothic Revival facade is immediately recognisable to adherents of the Chabad movement and replicas of the building have been constructed all over the world.

Motti Seligson, a spokesman for Chabad, said a “group of extremist students” had secretly broken through the walls of a vacant building behind the headquarters, creating an underground passage beneath a row of office buildings and lecture halls that eventually connected to the synagogue.

The property’s manager brought in a construction crew on Monday to fix the damaged walls, leading to a stand-off with those who wanted the passageway to remain.

“Those efforts were disrupted by the extremists who broke through the wall to the synagogue, vandalising the sanctuary, in an effort to preserve their unauthorised access,” Mr Seligson said.

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

Video shot by witnesses showed police confronting young men standing in a hollowed-out space inside a brick wall.

After officers removed one of the men from the dusty crevasse, a group of onlookers shoved officers, tossing wooden desks and scattering prayer books. One officer appeared to deploy an irritating spray at the jeering group.

Police said 10 people were arrested for criminal mischief and criminal trespass and one for obstructing governmental administration.

It was not immediately clear when the tunnel was constructed or what purpose it served.

As inspectors with the city’s building safety agency assessed the damage on Tuesday, a group of police officers stood behind barricades surrounding the headquarters, blocking a line of young men from entering the building.

New York City Fire Department spokesperson Amanda Farinacci said the agency had received an anonymous tip about the location last month, but when a fire prevention team responded, they found all the exits operable and up to code.

The building is now closed pending a structural safety review, Mr Seligson said.

“This is, obviously, deeply distressing to the Lubavitch movement, and the Jewish community worldwide,” he said. “We hope and pray to be able to expeditiously restore the sanctity and decorum of this holy place.”

Rabbi Schneerson led the Chabad-Lubavitch for more than four decades before his death in 1994, reinvigorating a Hasidic religious community which had been devastated by the Holocaust.

The headquarters was also the epicentre of the 1991 Crown Heights riots, which began after a seven-year-old boy was struck and killed by a car in the rabbi’s motorcade.

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