What’s Going on With the Tunnel Under a Brooklyn Synagogue, Explained

No, this doesn't have anything to do with Tunnel Girl on TikTok.

Over the last couple of years, there have been some pretty notable main characters on the internet. We’ve had Bean Dad, Bad Art Friend, Corn KidCinnamon Toast Shrimp Man, 30-50 feral hogs, Susi Pesto and DINKs. But perhaps none of these main characters are as unhinged nor as Jewish as this week’s Internet Main Character: The Tunnel.

If you’ve been online at all within the last 48 hours, you’ve definitely caught wind of the fact that a group of Hasidic Jews recently dug a tunnel underneath a synagogue at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn. Yes, I realize that sounds like a B-plot on an episode of “Seinfeld,” but it is true. From there, however, things get a little more opaque, with many on the internet asking: Why are the Jews digging a tunnel? Where does the tunnel go? And why are people fighting about it?

So, *cracks knuckles*, buckle up and let’s break it all down, shall we?

First, does this have anything to do with Tunnel Girl on TikTok?

No. Please focus.

What’s the significance of 770 Eastern Parkway?

770 Eastern Parkway, known colloquially as 770, located in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, is the world headquarters of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement of Judaism. The building was constructed in 1920 and in 1940 it was purchased as a home and synagogue for Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, the sixth Rebbe of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. Though the original building still stands, it was expanded in the ’60s and ’70s to encompass 784-788 Eastern Parkway as well. This larger block of buildings includes a larger synagogue, a kollel (institute for studying Talmud), a library, offices belonging to organizations within Chabad and more.

Today, 770 itself contains access to a main synagogue called Beis Chayeinu (which actually spans the space mostly below 784-788 Eastern Parkway), a yeshiva, offices, prayer rooms and the non-public apartments which once belonged to Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson. It is an icon of Chabad-Lubavitch Judaism, and is considered to be holy ground for many within the Chabad-Lubavitch movement.

And, on Dec. 22, 2023, CrownHeights.info broke the news that an underground tunnel had been found beneath 770 three weeks earlier.

Who made the tunnel, and more importantly, why???

To get the full picture here, we need some background on the inner politics of Chabad. A 2006 court ruling gave legal ownership of 770 to the main umbrella organization of Chabad, the Agudas Chasidei Chabad. However, Agudas Chasidei Chabad does not control the Beis Chayeinu synagogue space. Instead, that is controlled by the leadership of Beis Chayeinu. To make matters more complicated, while the Agudas Chasidei Chabad disavows the idea that Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson is the messiah and is still physically alive, some in the Chabad movement do believe that. (Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson died in 1994.)

With all that in mind, the tunnel was made as a part of a larger battle within Chabad for control of 770 Eastern Parkway and perhaps the movement itself.

But, to get more specific… 

It seems that the tunnel was constructed by young students associated with Chabad Messianism, whose goal was to fulfill apparent wishes of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson and expand the overcrowded synagogue into an empty space behind it. “The Rebbe, the words of the rabbi, says they need to expand it.” 21-year-old Brooklyn resident Zalmy Grossman told the New York Jewish Week. He added, “He’s the only one we listen to, nobody else. The Rebbe’s Chabad and what the Rebbe says — that’s what we do.”Chabad spokesperson Motti Seligson obliquely corroborated this in a statement wherein he said that the tunnel was created by a group of “extremists” within Chabad who wanted unauthorized access to various parts of 770.

However, another account also implies that the tunnel came about because of boredom. “Chabad member Yosef Brown, who works in the offices above the sanctuary, refuted descriptions of the students who dug the tunnel as extremists. Rather, they were bored rabbinical students who thought they were enacting their messiah’s vision, he said,” the New York Daily News wrote on Jan. 9.

“It started with one guy,” Brown told reporters. “Once the paneling is off (his friends are) like, ‘Oh, let’s expand.’”

He went on, “If you have a lot of time on your hands, you’re not doing drugs, you’re not messing with girls,” he added. “You go snooping around and all of a sudden a bunch of guys are like, ‘Lets do something.’”

So to recap, the tunnel likely came about because of A) Chabad infighting over who controls 770, B) a belief from some Chabad members that they were doing what Rabbi Menchem Mendel Scheerson wanted and C) boredom.

So… where does the tunnel go?

It runs from under the women’s section in the synagogue at 770 Eastern Parkway to the defunct Chabad mikveh building at the corner of Union Street and Kingston Street in Crown Heights. This would make the hand-dug tunnel about half-a-block long. (Though Chabad PR person Yaacov Behrman claims the tunnel is much smaller.)

The tunnel was eventually discovered after a homeowner on Union Street, who had been hearing noises in their home at night for some time, spoke out. Later, construction workers laying new plumbing line in the area came across a section of the tunnel. And in December, Chabad investigated and found the tunnel.

Drop tunnel pix, please.

OK, and there was a fight about the tunnel?

Yep!

After the tunnel was discovered, Chabad closed the women’s section of 770 to assess the damage and they eventually decided to seal the tunnel. On the evening of Monday, Jan. 8, a cement truck arrived at 770 to begin closing the tunnel. What happened next has been described as a fracas, a melee, mayhem and chaos as a group of young students tried to prevent the cement from filling the tunnel. (According to Jewish news site ColLive, many of the students were from Israel and wearing kippahs and pins which associate them with Chabad Messianism.)

“Footage from the scene on Monday showed chaos in the interior of the synagogue. Video clips that circulated online showed a small group of young men inside a hole in the wall that appeared to lead to a cavernous space, as police kept crowds of others away,” New York Jewish Week reported.

“Other videos showed young men tearing wooden panels off walls, arguing with police, being handcuffed and being removed from the building.”

The incident resulted in 12 people being arrested by the NYPD.

Is this one of those stories that only Jewish communities are following?

Nope! While a Jewish publication was the first to break the tunnel story, the subsequent melee at 770 caused the tunnel to break through to secular news outlets. When it did, people began hearing about the tunnel and the jokes started rolling in on Twitter. Here are some viral favorites collected by our partner publication the New York Jewish Week:

More jokes you want? Sure:

But I heard the tunnels might also be for trafficking children. Is that true?

Babe, that is what we in the biz call an antisemitic conspiracy theory. After the story of the tunnel beneath 770 broke, it prompted right-wing conspiracy theorists to do what they do best: be hateful and antisemitic.

Using upsetting phrases like “Jew tunnels” and “tunnel Jews,” people like podcaster Stew Peters (who is also known for promoting misinformation on COVID-19 and vaccines) immediately began implying that the tunnels had been used by Jews to traffic children. To do so, Peters flimsily claimed that “high chairs” had been discovered in the tunnels and cited a video of one soiled mattress inside 770. Later, he tweeted more disinformation, saying, “There seems to be a correlation between U.S. human trafficking and high Jewish population centers.”

Of course, Peters isn’t the only one. According to Vice, one Telegram account with 30,000 followers claimed that blood-stained mattresses were found in what they called “a jewish [sic] tunnel network.” QAnon supporter and “journalist” Liz Crokin implied on Twitter (to her 322.2K followers) that the tunnels are used for trafficking children. If you search #TunnelGate or #TunnelJews on Twitter — which I highly recommend you don’t — any number of antisemitic caricatures, videos of white supremacist Nick Fuentes and casual sharing of antisemitic stereotypes will pop up.

To make this clear: Of course, sexual abuse has occurred in Orthodox Jewish communities, as it has occurred in many other communities around the world. But there is absolutely no evidence that the tunnel below 770 has anything to do with child trafficking or sexual abuse. The people peddling this misinformation are invoking the thousands of years old antisemitic canard of blood libel, which falsely suggests that Jews steal children to use their blood to make matzah. And they are doing it because they hate Jews.

Oy.

Yeah, I know. Please enjoy this video of relaxing music and winter wildlife to re-center yourself.

Nice! But what will become of 770 and our beloved tunnel?

After the fight and arrests at 770, the Chabad-Lubavitch HQ was temporarily closed as the building needed to be evaluated for any structural instability the tunnel may have caused.

In a statement, Chairman of Chabad-Lubavitch Yehuda Krinsky said, “These odious actions will be investigated, and the sanctity of the synagogue will be restored.” That, in combination with the need for the building to be structurally sound, makes it seem certain that the tunnel will be filled in. May its memory be… you know… something, I guess.

Evelyn Frick

Evelyn Frick (she/they) is a writer and associate editor at Hey Alma. She graduated from Vassar College in 2019 with a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature. In her spare time, she's a comedian and contributor for Reductress and The Onion.

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