Extremist students from an ultra-Orthodox Hasidic group secretly hired migrant laborers to help them build a controversial tunnel at the sect’s world headquarters in Crown Heights — all to fulfill what they felt was a religious obligation to expand the holy site, The Post has learned.
Six renegade members of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement secretly began digging the 3-foot-high, 20-foot-wide, 50-foot-long tunnel themselves, using crude instruments and their hands. They stuffed the dirt into their pockets so that their work wouldn’t be detected by the sect’s leaders and wider community, a source in the orthodox community told The Post.
“You’ve seen the movie ‘The Shawshank Redemption’? That’s what these young men did at first: They dug and put the dirt in their pockets,” said Eitan Kalmowitz, a member of the Lubavitcher community in Crown Heights.
Later, the men, most of them in their teens and early twenties, took up a collection and hired a group of migrant laborers to finish the job, Kalmowitz said, describing the workers as “Mexicans.”
The workers lived at an abandoned building that contained a men’s ritual bath near Chabad world headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway — known simply as 770 in the community — for the duration of the clandestine work, Kalmowitz said.
“The Mexicans lived in the building for three weeks during the work,” said Kalmowitz, adding that the migrants did the work “correctly” and installed support beams. “They slept and ate there because it was a secret operation.”
Another Chabad member said he was shocked by how they managed to hide it.
“I was surprised by the stealth and secrecy of it all,” said a 38-year-old Chabad member who did not want to be identified. “It’s incredible to me that they kept it under wraps. The yeshiva boys are very idealistic, extreme.”
Some of the students are on visas from Safed, a holy city in Israel that is considered the birthplace of Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism, said a Chabad rabbi who asked not to be named.
The controversy over the clandestine construction project exploded earlier this week when members of the community discovered the tunnel and brought in cement workers to fill it in. On Monday, wild scenes broke out as the NYPD was called after some of the students tried to prevent the laborers from entering the tunnel. Nine men, aged 19 to 21, were arrested for criminal mischief and reckless endangerment.
“Some time ago, a group of extremist students broke through a few walls in adjacent properties to the synagogue at 784-788 Eastern Parkway to provide them unauthorized access,” said Rabbi Motti Seligson, spokesman for Chabad-Lubavitch, in a statement to The Post Tuesday. He did not return a subsequent request for comment Wednesday.
As a result, leaders will no longer sponsor the education visas that allowed the foreign students to attend yeshiva in Brooklyn, said the Chabad rabbi who asked not to be named.
“They are fanatical,” said the Chabad rabbi. “They are part of a small extreme group. The concept of Chabad is to be kind to everyone, and we are kind to them, but we never thought for a second they would make such problems. It’s a big mistake to let them into the community. The school will now close the visas to them.”
The Chabad rabbi told The Post that the students were trying to carry out a religious promise to Lubavitcher Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson — known as the Rebbe — who vowed to expand the sect’s synagogue in 1988, six years before his death.
Schneerson, who is buried at Montefiore Cemetery in Springfield Gardens, Queens, known as the Ohel, is seen as the messiah by some members of the Chabad community as the Jewish messiah. Argentina’s president-elect Javier Miele visited the gravesite days after his November election.
The Rebbe, as he is known to followers of the Chabad movement, was born in Ukraine and became one the most important Jewish leaders of the twentieth century. He escaped the war in Europe, settling in New York in 1941 and creating a global network comprised of thousands of schools and community centers.
The extremist students believe that redemption will come to them when they fulfill his command to expand the group’s holiest site.
Some have been known to be so fanatical that they vandalized a plaque at Chabad headquarters because it referred to Schneerson “of blessed memory,” a Hebrew honorific for the dead. A portion of the extremists believe that the rebbe is a still living messiah.
Now, the tunnel has exposed a deep-rooted schism among the messianic movement and brought unwanted attention to a very insular community, one expert told The Post.
“The image of Israelis coming to Brooklyn to build illegal tunnels looks terrible,” said Allan Nadler, a retired rabbi and professor of Comparative Religion/Jewish Studies Emeritus at Drew University in Madison, NJ. “These Israeli army aged boys should be in the army demolishing Hamas tunnels. It all looks a little crazy.”