Three buildings at Chabad-Lubavitch Headquarters in Crown Heights have been hit with vacate orders after the discovery of an illegal tunnel beneath the complex, according to the Department of Buildings.
The tunnel is 60 feet long and 8 feet wide with a 5-foot-tall ceiling supported by “inadequate rudimentary shoring,” DOB inspectors found, and stretches below a single-story extension behind the headquarters.
Constructed without DOB permits, or permission from Chabad-Lubavitch leadership, the tunnel reportedly connected to the basements of several adjacent buildings. Two of those buildings — 786 Eastern Parkway and 1457 Union St. — were structurally compromised by the tunnel, and have been hit with partial vacate orders. A third building, at 302 Kingston Ave., received a full vacate order due to fire safety concerns, as firewalls in the basement and on the first floor of the building had been removed.
All three buildings affected are part of Chabad-Lubavitch HQ at 770 Eastern Parkway.
The DOB also ordered the owners of the buildings to begin emergency repairs to restabilize the structures and seal up openings into the tunnel. A department spokesperson said the owners have already begun emergency repairs with the help of an architect, engineer, and general contractor.
It was not immediately clear who dug the tunnel, or for what purposes. Motti Seligson, a Chabad spokesperson, said in a statement that “extremist students” had broken through walls at adjacent properties in order to access a basement-level synagogue at 784-788 Eastern Parkway “some time ago.”
The incident came amid a long-running rift in the Chabad movement, which began after the death of former leader The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson. A splinter group of Lubavitchers believe the Rebbe was the Messiah and did not truly die — a belief condemned by Chabad leadership, which holds that the Rebbe did die and focuses on continuing his teachings. It is believed that the “extremist students” who dug the tunnel were part of the splinter group, who hoped either to expand Chabad headquarters or reach closed-off holy spaces within the complex.
Though it remains unclear how long the tunnel had been being dug — or when exactly it was discovered — Seligson said in a statement that Chabad leadership brought in a cement truck to repair the broken walls of synagogue and fill in the tunnel on Jan. 8, leading to chaos when a group of people who wanted to prevent the repairs broke in, leading to a chaotic scene in the space. Police arrested 12 people as a result of the incident.
Seligson said that an “annex room” dug beside the basement-level synagogue at the complex had been filled in with concrete on Wednesday evening in coordination with the DOB, and that the building had remained closed since Monday night.
“This episode has been deeply painful for us and the entire Jewish community,” he said in a statement. “The synagogue carries profound significance to the Chabad-Lubavitch movement and the Jewish people worldwide, as the Torah teachings that have emanated from within its holy walls have positively transformed the Jewish people and indeed society at large. We look forward to the sanctity of the synagogue being restored and its light continuing to emanate to the world.”
The scene outside the building was relatively calm on Wednesday, though some passersby paused to discuss the news. Police officers were keeping an eye on the building, standing outside various entrances and patrolling the block. Lubavitchers, unable to enter the building, met to speak and pray in a white tent beside 770 Eastern Parkway.
It is not immediately clear when the building will reopen.
Additional reporting by Camille Botello