Chaotic scenes broke out in the Chabad-Lubavitch headquarters synagogue in New York City on Monday after the New York Police Department tried to fill in and seal a secret tunnel and alcove that were found in the prayer hall.
It was unclear why the tunnel had been dug, but according to reports, the work was done in the last couple of years. Footage from within the tunnel showed that it led to an abandoned mikveh (ritual bath).
The tunnel was also shown to be full of garbage as well as household objects like a mattress and a child’s highchair.
Videos from the scene showed ultra-Orthodox men rioting and damaging the synagogue, pulling down the wood paneling and throwing prayer benches at police officers. More men who were pulled out of the tunnel by NYPD officers went and sat in the alcove, apparently trying to prevent it from being filled in.
The incident concluded with the arrest of several rioters, and the synagogue was shut down by the NYPD until further notice.
The Chabad-Lubavitch Headquarters chairman, Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, released a statement on Tuesday saying that the movement was “pained” by the vandalism that occurred on Monday.
Video of the incident pic.twitter.com/NqUFwAVFxG
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“These odious actions will be investigated, and the sanctity of the synagogue will be restored,” he wrote. “Our thanks to the NYPD for their professionalism and sensitivity.”
Chabad’s director of media, Motti Seligson, said on Tuesday that the rioters were a group of extremist students who “broke through a few walls in adjacent properties to provide them unauthorized access.”
According to a report on Chabad website COLLive.com, adherents of a Messianic Chabad faction, mainly from Israel, had been the driving force behind the effort to prevent the tunnel’s closure.
The iconic building at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn was the home of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the head of the Lubavitch Hasidic movement in the 1940s, and has been the Chabad-Lubavitch headquarters ever since. Over the years, extensions were built in order to make space for the growing movement, extending to two neighboring properties.
The building’s main hall, which sits below the neighboring buildings, is used by the Beis Chayeinu synagogue, and is also a study hall and an assembly hall for Chabad gatherings. Recent years have seen a dispute between Chabad factions over control of the main synagogue play out in court.
“Lubavitch officials have attempted to gain proper control of the premises through the New York State court system,” said Seligson. “Unfortunately, despite consistently prevailing in court, the process has dragged on for years.”