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New York synagogue: How Jewish students built ‘Shawshank’-style secret tunnel under Chabad

2024-01-11 15:25:12

A historic synagogue in Brooklyn became the talk of the town in New York City this week after a brawl took place between community members and police over the discovery of a secret tunnel underneath the building.

The tunnel was dug by a group of extremist students from an ultra-Orthodox Chabad-Lubavitch group, who believed it was a religious obligation to expand the holy site.

On Monday, the group’s leaders called in cement trucks to fill in the underground tunnel. The radical students tried to block them from entering the tunnel.

Police reached the spot and took the protesters out of the tunnel, which led to an altercation between the cops and the clergy. Nine people were arrested in custody.

According to a report in the New York Post, six members of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement secretly began digging the tunnel themselves, and the Chabad authorities denied having information of its existence till it was discovered.


The students dug the 3-foot-high, 20-foot-wide, 50-foot-long tunnel using crude instruments and their hands. They stuffed the dirt into their pockets so that their work goes undetected, and later secretly hired migrant labourers to continue the work, according to a report in the New York Post.

“You have seen the movie ‘The Shawshank Redemption’? That’s what these young men did at first — they dug and put the dirt in their pockets,” Eitan Kalmowitz, a member of the Lubavitcher community, told the New York Post.

They later collected money and hired a group of migrant labourers from Mexico to finish the job, Kalmowitz said.

Hasidic Jewish students sit behind a breach in the wall of a synagogue that led to a tunnel dug by the students. (Photo: AP)

These workers, Kalmowitz said, lived at an abandoned building that contained a men’s ritual bath near the synagogue.

“The Mexicans lived in the building for three weeks during the work,” said Kalmowitz. “They slept and ate there because it was a secret operation.”

The passageway is believed to have started in the basement of an empty apartment building behind the headquarters, snaking under a series of offices and lecture halls before eventually connecting to the synagogue, the Associated Press quoted Motti Seligson, a spokesperson for Chabad, as saying.

He characterised its construction as a rogue act of vandalism committed by a group of misguided young men, condemning the “extremists who broke through the wall to the synagogue, vandalising the sanctuary, in an effort to preserve their unauthorised access.”


Those who supported the tunnel said they were carrying out an “expansion” plan long envisioned by Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the former head of the Chabad movement.

Schneerson, considered a messianic figure, led the Chabad-Lubavitch for more than four decades before he died in 1994.

According to the Associated Press, those in support of the tunnel reason that the basement synagogue had long been overcrowded, prompting a push to annex additional space that some in the community felt was taking too long.

Many of those supporters subscribe to the messianic belief that Schneerson is still alive. “That’s what the rabbi wants, that’s what everybody wants,” New York Post quoted a local resident as saying.

With inputs from agencies

Published By:

Rishabh Sharma

Published On:

Jan 11, 2024

new york synagogue, new york synagogue tunnels, brooklyn synagogue, Chabad-Lubavitch movement, hasidic group

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