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NEW YORK, UNITED STATES - JANUARY 9: Police officers responded to the Chabad-Lubavitch World Headquarters in Crown Heights. (Photo by Lokman Vural Elibol/Anadolu via Getty Images)

What Actually Happened Underneath the Chabad-Lubavitch Headquarters?

Why (almost) everything you think you know about the Brooklyn synagogue tunnels is wrong.

The most important thing to know about the viral story about a “secret tunnel” burrowed beneath the Chabad-Lubavitch headquarters in New York is that almost everything about it on social media is wrong. 

The version that captured international attention goes like this. A secret tunnel was discovered underneath the Chabad offices and synagogue on Eastern Parkway in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. A group of Hasidic Jews refused to leave the area and clashed with police, who then arrested nine men between the ages of 19 and 22. 

In an instant a new blood libel was born. Conspiracy theorists on Twitter speculated that the tunnels were part of a child sex-trafficking network. Photos and video from the scene showed a stained mattress. The tunnel allegedly connected a Jewish ritual bath for women, known as a mikvah, to the synagogue.

Stew Peters, the executive producer of the Covid conspiracy theory documentary Died Suddenly, posted on X: “Who is being forced to sleep on these child-sized soiled mattress (sic) hidden in illegal tunnels connected to a NYC Jewish temple?” 

Jackson Hinkle, a vulgar nativist with 2.4 million followers on X, posted a fake map of sex offenders in Israel and asked if it was “connected to the secret underground synagogue tunnels.” 

Needless to say—but apparently not needless given that the blood libel is back, baby!—this was not the story. 

So what exactly was going on at the Chabad offices in Crown Heights? The answer is weirder than one might think. 

The young men who were engaged in the destruction of walls in adjacent buildings were part of an extreme faction of the Lubavitch movement that believes the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died in 1994, is the actual Messiah. Some even say the Rebbe is still alive, a Hasidic version of the persistent conspiracy theories about the “fake” death of Tupac Shakur. 

So this group of young men believed they were following Schneerson’s instructions to expand the Chabad headquarters, which he spoke about at the end of his life. At least that is the theory. 

Simon Jacobson, who published and transcribed Schneerson’s lectures and orations when he lived and is the author of a book about his teachings, Toward a Meaningful Life, told The Free Press that the group that knocked down the wall to the synagogue were best understood as mentally unstable. 

“They grab this idea that the Rebbe had plans to expand the synagogue,” he said. But Jacobson added that Schneerson would never have condoned expanding the synagogue in this way. “If the Rebbe was here he would condemn these people. He would say, ‘Pack your bags and don’t come back here again.’ ” 

Instead, a conflict between a handful of imbalanced extremists and the Chabad network has become fodder for a new slur against Jews. 

Rabbi Motti Seligson, a spokesman for Chabad, told The Free Press that the initial coverage in the press is partly responsible for the slander. “The press has some culpability. The breathless, sensational headlines were not good,” he said. “And that provided fodder to antisemitic conspiracy theorists.” 

Eli Lake is a Free Press columnist and host of The Re-Education podcast. Follow him on X (formerly Twitter) at @EliLake. Read his last Free Press piece How Texas A&M’s Deal with Qatar ‘Puts American Security at Risk.’

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