What We Know About the Brooklyn Synagogue Tunnel

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Quick Take

Nine men were charged with criminal mischief or attempted criminal mischief and other offenses after New York officials ordered an unauthorized tunnel built adjacent to a Brooklyn synagogue be stabilized. Viral posts made baseless claims that the tunnel was related to child sex trafficking. But the tunnel apparently resulted from a dispute between two sects over synagogue expansion.


Full Story

A long-brewing dispute within a Hasidic Jewish group in Brooklyn boiled over when an unauthorized tunnel adjacent to a synagogue was discovered and ordered stabilized by New York City officials. Videos of the skirmish between some members of the group and city officials that ensued last week went viral on social media and quickly led to conspiracy-laden claims.

For example, social media influencer Andrew Tate, who has a history of spreading misinformation, falsely claimed that the tunnel led to a children’s museum. His post on X — which has been viewed more than 11 million times, according to the platform — prompted responses from users such as, “Well they have been involved in pedophilic ritual sacrifice for hundreds of years,” and, “you weren’t supposed to find out about the rape tunnels.”

Other social media posts had a similar tone, like a post on Instagram that included a video purportedly of the tunnel and asked, “Was this part of an underground pedophile ring?”

A Brooklyn synagogue is facing structural safety concerns due to an illegal tunnel adjacent to it. Photo by Lokman Vural Elibol/Anadolu via Getty Images.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if they dug a tunnel all the way to Episten’s island !” responded one commenter, referring to the accused sex-trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, whose last name was misspelled in the post.

There is no evidence that the tunnel had anything to do with human trafficking.

Nine young men — members of the Hasidic group — were arrested on Jan. 8, the day the dispute over the tunnel broke out. But none of them were charged with anything related to human trafficking. According to an email from the New York Police Department, all nine were charged with either criminal mischief and reckless endangerment or attempted criminal mischief and attempted reckless endangerment. In addition, one was also charged with obstruction of governmental administration and two were charged with an attempted hate crime. The police did not provide details about the attempted hate crime or the other charges.

Levi Huebner, the lawyer representing the men, told us in a phone interview that the excavation adjacent to the synagogue was intended to be part of an expansion for the building, which is one factor in a controversy between two divided groups within the community.

The Chabad-Lubavitch movement, a branch of Hasidic Judaism, splintered after its last leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, died in 1994. A group within the movement believed that Schneerson was the Messiah and objected to descriptions of him as being dead. They also wanted to carry out his vision for expanding the synagogue.

It is not yet clear exactly why the area was excavated, but other reporting on the controversy points to the same reason.

The tunnel “was a single linear 60-foot long underground tunnel, illegally excavated directly underneath a single-story rear extension behind 784 & 786 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn,” the New York City Department of Buildings told us in an email. It was not connected to the main synagogue building.

The Jewish Children’s Museum is located on the other side of Kingston Avenue from the headquarters of the Chabad-Lubavitcher Hasidic movement, where the tunnel was found. But the tunnel did not cross the street, contrary to rumors on social media, like the one posted by Tate.

The building department also provided an image showing the rough outline of the tunnel, which is drawn in red, and the two adjacent buildings, which are highlighted in yellow, that were destabilized by the excavation. (Image, which doesn’t include the children’s museum across the street, is shown at right.)

The building department also noted that “the tunnel was found to be empty other than dirt, tools and debris from workers.” This is notable since some of the social media posts suggest that sinister items were found in the area.

One post on Instagram, for example, said, “Who is being forced to sleep on these child-sized soiled mattress hidden in illegal tunnels connected to a NYC Jewish temple?” The post included part of a video that shows a mattress being removed from a wall before community members broke through to the excavated area.

But the mattress wasn’t in the tunnel. It was standing vertically between the wood paneling inside the synagogue and the external cinder block wall. Huebner, the lawyer, said that it had been put there to provide structure and padding to support the thin wood paneling.

While many of the facts surrounding the tunnel are still unclear, what we know so far is that many of those involved say that the excavation was part of a controversial expansion of the building, that the tunnel did not connect to a children’s museum, and that there is no evidence to suggest human trafficking was happening there.


Editor’s note: FactCheck.org is one of several organizations working with Facebook to debunk misinformation shared on social media. Our previous stories can be found here. Facebook has no control over our editorial content.

Sources

Shapiro, Eliza and Katherine Rosman. “Secret Synagogue Tunnel Sets Off Altercation That Leads to 9 Arrests.” New York Times. 9 Jan 2024.

Das, Shanti. “Inside the violent, misogynistic world of TikTok’s new star, Andrew Tate.” The Guardian. 6 Aug 2022.

Williamson, Lucy and George Wright. “Andrew Tate charged with rape and human trafficking.” BBC. 21 Jun 2023.

New York Police Department. Email to FactCheck.org. 11 Jan 2024.

Huebner, Levi. Telephone interview with FactCheck.org. 12 Jan 2024.

Keene, Louis. “A brief history of the Messianic movement that inspired the tunnel under 770 Eastern Parkway.” Forward. 10 Jan 2024.

New York City Department of Buildings. Email to FactCheck.org. 12 Jan 2024.

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