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Morning Spew

Can’t Anyone Dig Secret Tunnels in Peace Anymore?

Predictably, a fascinating New York City story has instead become fodder for the worst people on the internet. And more news for your Wednesday.

9:58 AM EST on January 10, 2024

(Hell Gate)

It was a rainy Tuesday morning in Crown Heights, and NYPD officers were unloading barricades from the back of a truck to cordon off an apartment building located next to the Chabad headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway. "Tunnels" was a trending topic on social media. A security guard at the Bank of America branch across the street was talking about "chatter on the dark web," but the scene was calm, with a few dozen people waiting around the entrance to the synagogue in the building's basement, and everyone else seeming to go about their day. 

I asked a young man with a rain jacket pulled over his Haredi garb what was going on. "Nothing bad," he said, adding, "Something happened yesterday with these people who were making problems." He sounded annoyed by the whole situation. Another young man was even more curt: "Nothing happened."

Well, that obviously wasn't the case: The previous night, footage from the Chabad headquarters showed a group of young men confronting the NYPD as cement trucks attempted to fill a tunnel that some students had reportedly secretly dug from a nearby building. During the resulting melee, nine people were arrested, all young men between the ages of 19 and 22.

Predictably, antisemitic conspiracy theories quickly started to foment among the rabid right-wing hordes on Elon Musk's social media platform. But a source familiar with the situation explained to Hell Gate that the situation was really a conflagration of a long-simmering intra-community conflict within the Chabad-Lubavitch movement.

Among the mainstream of Chabad worshippers, the source told us, there are people who believe a Chabad-Lubavitcher rabbi, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died in 1994, is their messiah (you may have seen posters bearing his face around Brooklyn and in Manhattan). Among them, they said, there's an even more radical faction who believe he never actually died. This group, the Tzfatim, are students of an extremist Chabad yeshiva in Safed, Israel, as reported by Haredi publication Shtetl. "They still pretend that he shows up to prayers," our source said. "It's really interesting and bizarre." 

Tzfatim students, like others, often come from Israel to live and study at the Chabad headquarters. Acting on Schneerson's desires to expand the headquarters at 770, the source went on, a group of Tzfatim, during the pandemic lockdown, began secretly building the tunnel connected to the Chabad synagogue. In late December, Chabad leadership reportedly discovered the tunnel and made plans to repair it, the source said, "and the police were called because there was concern about the integrity of the structure."

Naturally, a fascinating New York City story has instead become fodder for the worst people on the internet. As Motti Seligson, the spokesperson for Chabad Lubavitch, told Vice News's Anna Merlan on Tuesday: "There are some who will use just about anything to prop up their ludicrous and often antisemitic conspiracy theories. I think the press has a responsibility to report the facts, not just accurately, but without sensationalizing them, which is the oxygen for a lot of these conspiracy theories." 

Please don't use these links to foment conspiracy theories:

Updated (1/10/24, 1:35 p.m.): This post has been updated to add references to Shtetl, a Haredi news publication.

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