New York City Department of Buildings officials have ordered a historic synagogue in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, to be vacated due to a tunnel illegally dug beneath the sanctuary.
The vacate order, issued late Wednesday, was accompanied by emergency work orders to stabilize the Chabad-Lubavitch World Headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway.
The buildings department described the subterranean tube as a single linear tunnel that is 60 feet long, 8 feet wide and 5 feet high, saying it was illegally excavated beneath a one-story building behind the headquarters.
The headquarters is actually two structures: a mansion where the revered Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson lived until his death in 1994, and a connected four-story building.
“We have issued emergency work orders to stabilize the buildings above the tunnel, vacate orders in parts of the buildings to ensure occupant safety, and enforcement actions against the property owners for the illegal work,” DOB spokesperson Andrew Rudansky said in a statement.
The discovery of the tunnel was the latest development in a yearslong struggle within Chabad-Lubavitch, which is one of the most well-known and largest Hasidic groups in the world.
The division centers on how to follow through with Schneerson’s vision of expanding the headquarters. Some followers believe he is the messiah and still alive. The leadership of Chabad-Lubavitch is more focused on following the rabbi’s teachings and running the synagogue.
The tunnel appeared to be a DIY attempt to expand the headquarters.
On Monday, Chabad leaders hired a cement crew to fill up the entrance to the tunnel and were met with opposition from the young worshipers who built it. Police arrived to a riot in the synagogue, video shows, with men shoving cops and throwing prayer benches. Other worshipers hid in the tunnel. Twelve people were arrested.
A two-story building on Kingston Avenue neighboring the headquarters was also ordered to fully vacate. DOB officials cited the tunnel and violations of fire safety rules, stating “fire-rated walls were removed at the cellar and on the first floor on the north and west sides of the building.” It was unclear if those walls were removed to make way for the tunnel.
Two other buildings — the single-story building where the tunnel was excavated and another neighboring building on Union Street — were hit with partial vacate orders.
A man who occasionally prays at the headquarters previously said the young men recently began excavating the tunnel to access a mikvah, or ritual bath, where Schneerson used to bathe. The space, which had been walled off, had great spiritual significance to the group, according to the worshiper, Baruch Herzfeld, 52.
The tunnel dispute comes amid a movement known as “Expand 770,” referring to the headquarters address. Levi Jacobson, who founded the movement, said on “The Crown Heights Insider” podcast that the rabbi “gave each and every one of us the mission” to grow the site, though it wasn’t clear if the men who built the tunnel were part of the Expand 770 movement.
“Every single Jew has an obligation to help build 770, expand 770,” Jacobson said on the podcast, adding he believes Schneerson, the “mashiach” or messiah, will return to the headquarters. Schneerson has not been replaced since his death.
For now, the headquarters is empty under buildings department orders. The agency has demanded the Chabad hire professional engineers to stabilize and possibly backfill the tunnel.