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The mystery of New York’s synagogue tunnels

We are returning to the uncanny, occult, and mysterious

January 12, 2024 - 1:00pm

The week’s strangest story, in a 2024 already off to a weird start, must surely be the Brooklyn Hasidic Tunnel. This secret, illegal tunnel was discovered under the headquarters of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic Jewish community at 770 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, NY. It’s not confirmed when it was dug, or why, though some reports suggest it leads to a currently unused men’s mikveh.

Rabbi Motti Seligson, a spokesperson for Chabad, called the tunnel a rogue act by “extremists”. Defenders, on the other hand, argued that the synagogue had long been overcrowded, and the tunnel simply represented the community’s young men taking the initiative on expansion. In any case, on Tuesday, footage was published online of a riot at the Chabad synagogue, as police officers closed off the building and a cement truck arrived to seal the tunnel. 12 have since been arrested. The scenes spread rapidly online, producing an efflorescence of memes: some surreal, many virulently antisemitic, and others linking to existing conspiracy theories.

The mysterious and self-contained nature of orthodox Jewish communities has long made them a target for such fabrications — a tendency stretching all the way back to medieval blood libels, such as the 1475 case of Simon of Trent. The Brooklyn tunnel slotted neatly into such lore: footage of objects including what appeared to be a bloodstained mattress being removed from the tunnels encouraged a frenzy of speculation. Some even linked it back to existing rumours such as the debunked tale of malnourished children rescued from tunnels under Central Park by the US Military in 2020.

I have no way of knowing what actually happened at the synagogue, and no desire to add to the speculation. But while there’s no reason to believe the rumours, slurs, and smears now circulating, the little we do know is strange enough without embellishment.

The building at 770 Eastern Parkway is the centre of a global network of “Chabad Houses”, founded by and linked to the charismatic rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, who — until his death in 1994 — viewed himself as the leader of world Jewry. During his life many followers believed him to be the Messiah, and AP reports that some still think so, or even believe Schneerson is still living.

And both this apocalyptic turn among Chabad followers, and the speculation prompted by its discovery, together underline what I’ve described as the real and already well-established re-enchantment of the world. That is, the bleeding back into everyday life of the uncanny, occult, and mysterious, through the cracks in our supposedly rationalistic and mechanistic modern life.

The strangeness of the Brooklyn Chabad story, that is, rests not in the fuel it provides to an existing memeplex of often antisemitic conspiracies. Rather, it’s in how the report abruptly lifted the lid on a community — in one of the most modern, high-tech cities on the planet —for whom the rationalistic, pluralistic values that officially sustain that civilisation seem to have been largely irrelevant, in comparison to their self-contained, profoundly religious outlook.

After all, the Chabad community, (possibly undead) Messiah and all, flourished at the heart of Brooklyn. This fact only came to seem remarkable when some of its young men got a bit too headstrong about expanding. And the conspiratorial internet response to these revelations has been in its own way just as self-contained and religious. This all invites the question: how much of the rest of supposedly rational modernity now exists only as a veneer overlaying a competing upswelling of religious zealotries, both ancient or modern? Even leaving aside the internet rumour-mill, that on its own is a perspective-altering prospect.


Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.

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Aidan Twomey
Aidan Twomey
6 months ago

This is the city of Gozer the Gozarean, after all.

anna smith
anna smith
6 months ago
Reply to  Aidan Twomey

great

anna smith
anna smith
6 months ago
Reply to  Aidan Twomey

hahaha ok

ChilblainEdwardOlmos
ChilblainEdwardOlmos
6 months ago
Reply to  Aidan Twomey

That’s a big Twinkie.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
6 months ago

By far the most important point Mary makes here (and possibly anywhere) is this:

how much of the rest of supposedly rational modernity now exists only as a veneer overlaying a competing upswelling of religious zealotries, both ancient or modern?

I think we’ve reached a point where the clash between Enlightenment values and those of an older, more belief-driven narrative of our lives hangs in the balance. Many examples of this can be seen, including at the individual level the conversation of Ayaan Hirsi Ali to Christianity as a means to push back against the fulminations of Islam, and publicised on the pages of Unherd. I disagreed with her stance.
What’s in question is the very nature of belief itself. As the complexity of the world has expanded in a way it would’ve been difficult to envisage prior to the internet, the reversion to a more extra-human disposition is in some ways understandable. Those of an already religious disposition seem to be clinging ever more closely to their beliefs (we see it in other Unherd articles almost every day.) It provides comfort; it provides identity. Both are, of course, entirely human. That doesn’t mean it’s right to embrace them.
It’s my contention that systems of belief have brought us to where we are today. Whilst useful as a tool for advancing from prehistory and through the advent of consciousness and attempts to understand the world, our new situation requires something which the Enlightenment sought to provide but which perhaps isn’t enough; we are spiritual creatures.
What emerges from this is a matter of the utmost concern to our humanity. One thing i’m convinced of, however, is that a reversion to, or clinging to, old beliefs is absolutely not the answer. It’s already been road-tested (as it were) for a few millenia and ultimately been found not just wanting, but coercive and divisive. There is wisdom to be taken forward from it, but belief itself should not become the barrier we erect to prevent an even better understanding of ourselves and the universe without.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
6 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

I agree. Ancient third-world superstitions and hatreds cloaked in the guise of humanist secularism and rationalism are attacking the enlightened and scientific Christian West.

Nathan Sapio
Nathan Sapio
6 months ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

Well done sir. As clever as it is true

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
6 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

I think we’ve reached a point where the clash between Enlightenment values and those of an older, more belief-driven narrative of our lives hangs in the balance. Many examples of this can be seen, including at the individual level the conversation of Ayaan Hirsi Ali to Christianity as a means to push back against the fulminations of Islam, and publicised on the pages of Unherd. I disagreed with her stance.
If you’re a Hegelian, then we’ve reached the point where both thesis (traditional Christianity) and antithesis (Enlightenment rationalism) are exhausted and we need to form a new synthesis. Somehow we need to move beyond the, in my opinion naive, widespread consensus that science and faith are in conflict, and instead fuse them together to provide the foundation for a new weltanschauung.
(Incidentally, Unherd’s spellchecker recognizes “weltanschauung” but not “naive”, if it lacks a dieresis).

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
6 months ago

Your comment is moving in the same direction as my own thought process. Both the Renaissance and Enlightenment are quite possibly attempts at moving beyond the boundaries that religion sets for us. Another leap of imagination is required.
I feel a certain sadness that a great many people remain stuck in their ancestral/familial mindset. This remains the greatest source of conflict, exacerbated by the internet.
At the same time, i can appreciate the immense psychological discomfort felt when presented with the prospect that cherished beliefs are mistaken. I wish i could be more patient with those who gnash their teeth or simply downvote as a reaction to that discomfort, but if it’s not apparent to them that every single conflict and schism in our lives comes about through false belief systems, i’m not sure what more can be said.

Glynis Roache
Glynis Roache
6 months ago

Frequently of late, Mary Harrington‘s articles have reflected a certain (widespread?) dissatisfaction with the current paradigm of a material universe in which the raison d’être of the human being is viewed as little more than a commitment to the continuation of a species in the least painful way possible. Not that that isn’t a time consuming and involving task … But is it enough? A detectable level of spiritual unrest in much of Mary’s commentary seems to suggest that, maybe, it isn’t.
    Typically, science has dealt with the ‘how’ and philosophy and religion have dealt with the ‘why’.  It seems that it is time, as R-W Hippie says, to move towards a new and more expansive amalgam of the two (synthesis). Indeed, I’ve noticed the use of the term ‘scientistic’ – as in scientistic materialism – because absolute adherence to materialism is no longer regarded as scientific. Steve Murray mentions the ‘advent of consciousness’. Consciousness is an easy word to use. Impossible to explain. We need to acknowledge that the nature of consciousness remains ‘the hard question’. And yet , within its common context, maybe mankind is now ready for a greater understanding. Maybe we have been – as in Karen Armstrong’s ‘The History of God’ (which discusses the evolution of belief) supplied, hitherto, with such explanations as our level of development could accept. No need to despise them now. I would not, for instance, like to precipitately abandon the Christian calendar or entirely disregard the teachings of an outstanding, historical figure born in Bethlehem. He provided us with a humane route forward that we could potentially believe in. Simultaneously, he was potentially the face of the infinite, one we could grasp at the time. 
   But now we have quantum physics, and the complexities of the ‘why’ can be revisualised accordingly. As Arthur Stanley Eddington said : “Something unknown is doing we don’t know what.” I’ve cheated a little with the context of the quote but perhaps it’s time to approach the ‘unknown’ in an open-minded way across all the disciplines, in order to seek some more expansive and satisfying answers to our apparent metaphysical unrest.

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
6 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Enightenment values themselves are belief driven and subsist on their own myths of infinite human agency, and rationalist perfectibility, etc. John Gray has a good article in the NS recently drawing connections between magic, the pretensions of the medieval ‘magus’, and the conceptual substrate of the sceintific revolution.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
6 months ago

I wouldn’t necessarily disagree. The Enlightenment didn’t unfold in opposition to religion but rather as an attempt to escape the stranglehold we’d hitherto allowed/required it to exert on us.

David Jennings
David Jennings
6 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Steve, I have consistently appreciated your numerous comments in Unherd, however much I might disagree with them.Your tone is one of respectful disagreement, which is a much needed stance in these shrill times. Your latest comment above is no exception. However, its logic is rooted in your statement that “a reversion to, or clinging to, old beliefs is absolutely not the answer. It’s already been road-tested (as it were) for a few millenia and ultimately been found not just wanting, but coercive and divisive“. I disagree. As Chesterton wrote, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” While those beliefs, as you state, can be corrosive and divisive, so are any beliefs that seek to reflect the Truth in a world where that Truth is only partially knowable.

LeeKC C
LeeKC C
6 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

“We are spiritual creatures”
We are perhaps generally split in our thinking as either rational enlightened human beings or we are spiritual. Maybe a key to this is to relate to ourselves in some way as both; not and or. Also, to perhaps understand that in our many ways to understand, much of all that Is, is actually beyond our true understanding and accept this also.
There is a beautiful song by Stevie Wonder’s albums Keys From The Songs Of Life” which is very fitting to all of this:

So make sure when you say you’re in it, but not of it
You’re not helping to make this earth a place sometimes called Hell

ChilblainEdwardOlmos
ChilblainEdwardOlmos
6 months ago
Reply to  LeeKC C

“Songs in the Key of Life”.
The song is Another Star. Had the privilege of hearing him perform it live a couple times. Stevland Morris’ 1970s oeuvre is about as good an argument for the existence of a god as could be IMHO.

Paul Nathanson
Paul Nathanson
6 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

I always read your comments, Steve, with the expectation of finding something interesting and occasionally moving. And this one is no exception–although what follows is addressed not only to you but many others on UnHerd. I seldom respond to articles or comments on religion, however, because there seems to be no point in doing so. In my opinion, at any rate, many people misunderstand religion (as a universal human phenomenon as distinct from this or that organized form of it) and are either unable or unwilling to take it seriously. You do acknowledge the legitimacy of “spirituality,” Steve, to be sure, but only when it has lost any connection with its origin (which is religion).
Although I’ve said this many times, I’ll try once more (albeit very briefly and therefore inadequately). “Belief” and “religion,” whether personal and developmental or institutional, are not synonymous. At the core of religion, both psychologically and historically, is a specific kind of experience—to avoid loaded words, let’s call it the ecstatic sense wonder–not a doctrine (although this experience eventually finds expression in doctrines).
Moreover, “reason” and “science” are not synonymous. It didn’t take the romantics long to realize, in fact, that reason alone described not fully human beings but less-than-fully human beings. I see the Enlightenment not as the beginning of some grand “synthesis” but as an early sign of the grand fissure that has polarized us ever since into bitterly opposed ideologies on both the Left and the Right—all of which combine the most primitive features of both politicized reason (to the extent of glorifying hatred, for example, as a reasonable means to achieving an end) and institutionalized religion (to the extent of glorifying collective identity and dehumanizing other collective identities).
As for historical “road testing,” therefore, I see no evidence that pure science (no longer tethered to centuries of moral tradition and historical experience) has a lofty track record. Hegel notwithstanding, we seem to be stuck at the stage of “antithesis” and therefore avoiding that of “synthesis”
The fact is that people are extremely complicated. In an often ambiguous world, we often become ambivalent. We need many sources of insight, many sources of beauty or ecstasy, not one at the expense of others.

Julia Garden
Julia Garden
6 months ago

I think we’ve reached a point where the clash between Enlightenment values and those of an older, more belief-driven narrative of our lives hangs in the balance. Many examples of this can be seen, including at the individual level the conversation of Ayaan Hirsi Ali to Christianity as a means to push back against the fulminations of Islam, and publicised on the pages of Unherd. I disagreed with her stance.

Arthur G
Arthur G
6 months ago
Reply to  Julia Garden

“Enlightenment values” in and of themselves are insufficient to sustain a civilization. Without the Judeo-Christian framework of the highest good and the purpose of man it descends into competing awful ideologies, e.g. Marxism, Racialism, Wokism, Nihilism, etc.
There is nothing in the Enlightenment or modern secular liberalism that tells why I shouldn’t kill my neighbor and take his property if I can get away with it. There is no strictly rational argument as to why modern Western values are better than those of Hamas or the Nazis. “Their truth” to use the phrase is that they enjoy killing their enemies. Who can say they’re wrong without reference to some transcendental power external to humanity.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
6 months ago
Reply to  Julia Garden

How else do we push back against fundamentals Islamic extremism? Through scientific discourse?

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
6 months ago
Reply to  Julia Garden

Wonderful example of the merits of today’s Kathleen Stock article .

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
6 months ago

That is, the bleeding back into everyday life of the uncanny, occult, and mysterious, through the cracks in our supposedly rationalistic and mechanistic modern life.
How does your smartphone work? Technology has undermined rationalism by surrounding the average individual with a world filled with arcane and unknowable devices. In 1700, the ordinary stablehand had a better understanding of the majority of contemporaneous technology than the ordinary cube-dweller has today. Not surprisingly, magical thinking runs rampant. What, after all, is trans ideology but magical thinking applied to sexuality? To paraphrase Descartes, I identify, therefore I am.
Everywhere we see linguistic games designed, not merely to obfuscate, but to actually change reality. One sometimes gets the impression that our elites genuinely believe that if they call a tax a fine, then by God it is a fine. To change the name is to change the thing.

Emre S
Emre S
6 months ago

I think what we’re seeing is Wittgenstein’s rule-following paradox catching up with the scientific method. Science stood on the idea of being able to describe objective reality without being dependent on the scientist by virtue of its repeatable experiments on a falsifiable hypothesis. Postmodernism (and Critical Theory) brought the scientist back in the picture talking about power structures and narrative. Who defines the rules and the assumptions in the experiment? What’s the simplest explanation – and according to whom? How valid are observations based on expectations of normality – who defines what’s normal? When science is now (correctly) seen as a scientist following a bunch of rules to describe reality, the edifice starts to collapse, there’s no longer objective reality, everything is conditional on alignment to power which dictates reality (by oppression) aka “the scientific consensus” or simply “the science”. You don’t trust science because it’s correct, you agree with one or other scientist (which may mean you’re racist). Inversion of reality becomes scientific since it’s all relative.

Michael McElwee
Michael McElwee
6 months ago

Why this word “zealotry?” Is making space for more worshipers that?

Norman Powers
Norman Powers
6 months ago

Feels like the specifics of this incident are under-analyzed here. Like, supposedly rational modernity is one thing. The other thing – probably more important and interesting – is … what the hell?
I mean, the idea that headstrong young men just wanted to expand their synagogue by digging a secret tunnel to an abandoned bath chamber is obviously ludicrous. That’s just absolute nonsense. Why were they building it? How did they manage to do that in secret? Why was there such a sudden rush to fill it in? And then they rioted to try and stop it being destroyed, digging through the walls to try and stop the operation?
This is clearly the tip of a very large and specific story that desperately needs some actual journalistic research. Mary is clearly unwilling to go anywhere near that, lest she merely indulge a “memeplex”, but some of us have enquiring minds that want to know!

Sylvia Volk
Sylvia Volk
6 months ago
Reply to  Norman Powers

“Look, here are Jewish students digging tunnels, everybody’s doing it!” – that was my first thought when I read about this elsewhere, but that would only explain why it was picked up as mainstream news, not why they did it in the first place.

Cynthia W.
Cynthia W.
6 months ago
Reply to  Norman Powers

I agree. I haven’t found, in journalism, even the basics of “tunnel from where to where”.

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
6 months ago
Reply to  Norman Powers

The Buildings Dept. was quoted as saying something like “several adjacent properties were damaged, including one on Union St.” which is next block over, behind the main synagogue. But I couldn’t find any further details. And I live just a half a walk away.
It was also reported that the tunnel was eight yards wide! Which is just un-believable. And leaves me wondering what they did with all the dirt?!
Curiouser and curiouser!
Mary’s point is a valid one. People around us are sometimes living in completely different worlds.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
6 months ago
Reply to  Norman Powers

“That’s just absolute nonsense”.

Why is it? An inability to comprehend a zealous religious orthodoxy on your part doesn’t in itself show much evidence of an open enquiring mind!

Christine Novak
Christine Novak
6 months ago

I went back to reread Mary’s article on faeries. One observation she feels is happening is the “re-subordination of empiricism to moral doctrine.” And increase in the believe of the unseen world. I would counter that. The faith in empiricism was just that, a faith. Mankind cannot live without faith. The Comment that suggests that Christianity is outdated and a new synthesis is needed, doesn’t understand Christianity. It is not a doctrine (alone), it is a person. A real and active encounter with the living God. That reality has and always will already permeate material reality because He is the Creator. My material reality is important to me as it is to Him. And, I am not limited to it.
As for Chabad tunnels, I have no comment.

Richard Pearse
Richard Pearse
6 months ago

Excellent comment! It’s always nice to read the simple truth of the incarnation – way different than “the historical figure who was born in Bethlehem” (as one commenter here put it).

Modern (since Francis Bacon) scientific philosophy (that only observations of a proximate cause can be “knowable”, let alone intelligible) seems to have run into roadblocks that modern science can’t explain, such as the Big Bang happening all at once and creating the material universe, the irreducible complexity of a functioning biological cell, the appearance of fossils without ANY antecedents during the “Cambrian Explosion” everywhere and all at once (etc).

If only the scientific method could “demonstrate” why the logic of the scientific method is true (eg, that a conclusion and its opposite cannot both be true under the same circumstances), then we might be getting somewhere :).

Emre S
Emre S
6 months ago
Reply to  Richard Pearse

Scientific method is not provable since the underlying mathematics itself can’t be proven – we can see that from the work of Goedel on Incompleteness Theorems. Arguably, scientific method’s greatest achievement so far has been its empirical success, as in the body of results (eg. technology) produced following its prominence. Yet in the Wokeist world the rot is beginning to spread where diversity of scientists is more important than what they have to say. When this leads to scientific method’s empirical failure (acceptance of magical thinking as “the science”) than the method’s achievements will be in question.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
6 months ago
Reply to  Richard Pearse

None of those anti.scientific and irrational arguments are solid. It used to be argued the eye could not have evolved; in fact it did on numerous occasions and each stage had adaptive advantage.

Promoting “God” as an all purpose cause explains nothing. Why not indeed just cite the quantum event Big Bang?

Judy Englander
Judy Englander
6 months ago

Correction: Chabad-Lubavitch are ultra-orthodox, not orthodox.

ChilblainEdwardOlmos
ChilblainEdwardOlmos
6 months ago
Reply to  Judy Englander

Seriously. They’re as fundamentalist as one can get.

Claire D
Claire D
6 months ago

Agree with some commenters
That the tunnels were some sort of extension, or ‘Living space’ expansion seems quite ridiculous.

Inevitably there will be speculation in various murky and unsavoury directions.

Other explanations might be …

That were the synagogue/ place of worship attacked or laid siege to in some anti -semitic / pro Hamas act of terror – perhaps the tunnel would be a secret safe room?

Or perhaps the plan was that it would lead to safety somehow.

Perhaps more fanciful is that the tunnels would act as refuge during a forthcoming and foretold Armageddon?

A few things are certain
The tunnels are real
The sect members did everything they could to disrupt and derail the Police and city in their directive to expose and infill the tunnel.

The news is quite tunnelly at the moment.

ChilblainEdwardOlmos
ChilblainEdwardOlmos
6 months ago
Reply to  Claire D

If you were familiar with how extremely fundamentalist the Chabad-Lubavitch branch of ultra-orthodox Judaism is ( an understatement ) you’d be less incredulous. They’re FLDS level kooky. Also the police were called by the authorities in the Chabad-Lubavitch community. It was an internal religious conflict.

Elizabeth DuBois
Elizabeth DuBois
6 months ago

My two cents? I grew up 2 blocks from the Rebbe and the backnof my house abutted the Chabad-Lubavitch Yeshiva. They dug up the back yard to our brownstone in an illegal and unauthorized “expansion”. Also, the neighbors flanking us.

There was a half city-block wide CRATER in the middle of our connected yards for almost a decade! Lincoln Place between New York and Brooklyn Avenues. My mom fought with the city about it but the cult has REAL power and nothing was ever done. I sold the house 25 years ago and moved out of new york. But the experience growing up there was mindblowing and unforgettable

At lunchtime like clockwork 100 kids would hang out of multiple windows and throw bottles at us making monkey noises. Yes our side was black. Eastern Parkway was the dividing line between hacidic jews and west indians. Remember the riots in 1991? We didnt start that! That was the Rebbe’s motorcade mowing down two little west indian boys. And the city couldnt or wouldnt do shit because the hacidic jews have power. REAL power! They mowed down 2 little boys and kept driving.

The Rebbe, like Warren Jeffs, and Jim Jones, was a NARCISSIST! He taught his followers from very young ages that they are the chosen ones and that they can do whatever the they want with impunity. Especially in black neighborhoods because A) in the 80’s & 90’s no one would notice and B) they make money and pay HANDSOMELY to be left alone. The only reason I suspect anyone is even paying attention now is one word: gentrification. Property values have skyrocketed in that area on speculation that it wont be ghetto soon. But I suspect now people are realizing these aren’t normal people or normal jews. They are a rabid cult.

But the interesting thing is you are absolutely right! I agree, the re-enchantment is happening. Algorithms are pushing people away from their rational selves and toward their narcissictic selves… and the cluster B personalities are having a field day. For every loud narcissist there are plenty of willing followers. I see this stark new reality chipping away at the sanity of liberal America.

I live outside Boston and our laws, schools, and social lives have been utterly corrupted by gender and race ideologies championed by “mini Rebbe’s” in dresses… aka very loud narcissist housewives with trans kids.

Sorry for the rant. But I think this is a very simple equation. The Rebbe was a real piece of shit narcissist who raised a community of boys to be self-centered, rude, mean, conniving, entitled little shits. Now they are in their 30’s and they are a blight on society.

This is why I go to school board meetings and speak out against the narcissist moms because this “me, me, me… us, us, us” epidemic is everywhere and we must stand up to it! Because unlike the Lubavitcher sect women CAN stand up.

Case in point… from the post today. This is one of the diggers reasoning for digging the tunnels…. “We were sick and tired of being stuck in a cramped synagogue that could take 15 minutes to leave during the high holiday services,” …that’s it! They wanted more space so they took it. Like they took my yard as a child. And my dignity as a neighbor. I stormed over there once to demand action and I was so scared at the looks and energy of the crowding men around me I ran like a starled rabbit! Im a little stronger now than I was when I was 17…LOL!