A large fight broke out at a prominent Chabad center in Crown Heights, Brooklyn after Hasidic Jewish leaders moved to seal a secret tunnel dug by worshipers, police said Tuesday.
Twelve men were taken into NYPD custody following the brawl Monday afternoon in the main hall of the Chabad-Lubavitch World Headquarters on Eastern Parkway. Charges included criminal mischief and obstruction. Chabad-Lubavitch is one of the most well-known and largest Hasidic groups in the world, according to the non-profit American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise.
In recent weeks, leaders within Chabad-Lubavitch learned of a group of young male worshipers who had gained “unauthorized” access to the depths of the headquarters, according to a statement from Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Motti Seligson. The youngsters, who are deeply religious, had somehow made their way into a walled-off, subterranean mikvah, or ritual bath, that was beneath adjacent properties, said Baruch Herzfeld, 52, who occasionally prays at the headquarters.
He said the young men began building the tunnel to the mikvah during the pandemic. Herzfeld said the young men felt a special connection to the space because a prominent rabbi used to spiritually cleanse himself there. Exactly how the tunnel was built was unclear.
The issue came to a head when Chabad leaders brought in a construction crew to close off the makeshift entrance with cement, according to Seligson.
“Earlier [Monday], a cement truck was brought in to repair those walls. 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 in the statement.
Viral videos posted to social media show a riot erupted after workers moved to seal the entrance to the tunnel. Dozens of men pushed each other and threw prayer benches at police near the tunnel entrance obscured by wood planks.
Complaints with the Department of Buildings indicate that a resident of a neighboring property had alerted authorities to “an unsecured building.”
“Construction in progress destroying my foundation building a tunnel underneath my property,” reads one complaint dated Tuesday.
Herzfeld said the melee comes amid years-long “tension” over “who has control over this place, the true believers, the deep believers, or the bureaucrats.” Herzfeld called the headquarters a “Mecca” for members of that Hasidic movement.
“It’s like two brothers [who] disagree, and when they disagree, sometimes it will turn into a heated moment,” Herzfeld said. “One group has a little bit more of a supernatural interpretation of their religion and then the other one doesn’t.”
The Department of Buildings said in a statement that inspectors were examining the structural stability of the tunnels on Tuesday.