13 Plead Not Guilty Over Illegal Tunnel at Brooklyn Synagogue

Dispute at the site led to a melee back in January
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Apr 12, 2024 9:00 AM CDT
13 Plead Not Guilty Over Illegal Tunnel at Brooklyn Synagogue
Hasidic Jewish students sit behind a breach in the wall of a Brooklyn synagogue that led to an illegal tunnel on Jan. 8, 2024, in New York.   (Bruce Schaff via AP, File)

Thirteen members of the Hasidic Jewish community have pleaded not guilty to charges stemming from their alleged role in a dispute over an illegal tunnel built beneath a historic Brooklyn synagogue. The defendants, many of them international students from Israel, appeared in Brooklyn court this week on charges of reckless endangerment, criminal mischief, and obstruction of governmental administration, per the AP. They were issued a limited protection order that bars them from making any excavations or alterations to the building. They also cannot be in contact with a local rabbi.

Prosecutors say the defendants—who range in age from 19 to 26—were involved in a Jan. 8 melee in the basement of the global headquarters of Chabad-Lubavitch, a movement of Orthodox Judaism. The dispute erupted after the discovery of an underground passage connecting four buildings within the famed Jewish complex. Proponents of the tunnel said they were carrying out the wishes of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the former Chabad leader and one of Judaism's most influential leaders, who spoke of expanding the densely packed worship space before his death in 1994. Some members of the Chabad community believe Schneerson is still alive and that he is the messiah.

When Chabad leaders moved to seal the tunnel, characterizing it as a rogue act of vandalism, a group of young men fought back, ripping the wooden siding off the synagogue and refusing to leave the dusty passage. Their protest escalated as police arrived, leading to a chaotic scuffle and more than $1,500 in property damage, according to court papers. None of the men who were charged in the brawl were accused of digging the passage, which authorities described as a linear tunnel that was 60 feet long and 8 feet wide. An investigation by the Department of Buildings found the tunnel, which has since been filled with concrete, compromised the stability of several structures surrounding the religious complex, leading to vacate orders at four buildings.

(More Chabad Lubavitch stories.)

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