Last week, after underground tunnels were discovered near the Chabad-Lubavitch synagogue in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood and attempts by synagogue officials to perform repairs were prevented by a group of yeshiva students, a mini-riot broke out after police showed up to restore order. A group of rowdy yeshiva students was seen smashing down a wall at the most cherished site of the Chabad movement.
The incident in New York made headlines and primetime TV news from Reykjavík to Mumbai and beyond. Antisemitic conspiracy theories on the internet went into overdrive, alleging the tunnels were used for everything from child sexual abuse to secret animal sacrifices. Even well-meaning observers wondered: what in God’s name was going on there?
The real story emerged in bits and pieces. The incident involved an unauthorized and haphazard attempt by a group of students to expand the main Chabad synagogue, commonly referred to as “770”, for its address at 770 Eastern Parkway. The tunnels were access points to an area the students had been excavating.
In subsequent statements, synagogue officials referred to the students as “young agitators” and “extremists”. Several well-placed sources within the Crown Heights Chabad community, however, have identified the tunnel-diggers as having a more distinct identity: the “Tzfatim” .
The Tzfatim, who have a long reputation for creating disturbances, are, in the parlance of Chabad factionalism, “extreme Meshichists”. Meshichists – or Messianists – are Chabad Hasidim who believe that their late leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, is the Messiah, and despite his death in 1994, is still meant to reappear.
“Tzfatim” (literally, those of Tzfat – the city of Safed, in Israel – where many of the students had attended yeshiva previously, and then came to spend a period of study in Crown Heights) are perceived to be, even by Meshichist standards, unusually fervent in their beliefs and have been involved in numerous incidents of violence and mayhem for nearly three decades.
The underground excavations, it now appears, are the latest in a long string of incidents of anarchy and lawlessness by this group.
The 90s messiah
The seeds of Chabad messianism were planted decades before the Tzfatim showed up on the scene.
When Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson assumed the leadership of the Chabad-Lubavitch community in 1951, he delivered a seminal public address, which set the movement’s guiding principle for the next seven decades: “We are the last generation. It is our job to bring Moshiach” – the Hebrew term for the Messiah.
In the years that followed, Chabad Hasidim were animated by various initiatives they were tasked with by Schneerson, but none more so than the notion that the Messiah was everything. It was time. We must bring him. He must come. He will come. And it will be in our lifetime.
His followers heard something else too: their leader, in their view, was declaring himself the Messiah. What exactly he said and what he meant and how he meant it would be hotly debated over the years, but in a broad sense, Chabad Messianism became established Chabad doctrine.
In 1991, Schneerson delivered an address to his followers that triggered a maelstrom within Chabad: “I have done everything I can to bring Moshiach, but we are still in exile,” he said. “Now I hand it over to you. You must do everything you can.”
His words sent shockwaves through the Chabad world. Committees began to form. The rebbe had tasked them with the ultimate monumental task.
Except: they knew who the Messiah was – it was Schneerson himself. What many Chabad Hasidim heard, therefore, was a command to prepare the world for the rebbe to reveal himself.
During the ten months that followed, the Chabad community went into a frenzy. The feeling was that the Messiah’s arrival was now imminent. This was not a drill.
There were various initiatives to collect signatures declaring Schneerson the Messiah. When told about the signatures, he thanked those involved for their efforts. Did he approve? Many Chabad followers thought it obvious that he did.
Then, in March of 1992, Schneerson had a stroke and lost his ability to speak. His illness deteriorating steadily, the mood in Chabad became desperate: the rebbe couldn’t die. He was Moshiach.
A refrain known as the “yechi”, chanted or sung each time Schneerson appeared in public, came to symbolize the messianic fervor, and the belief that the rebbe could not die: “Long live our master, our teacher, our rabbi, the king Messiah, forever and ever!”
Schneerson could no longer speak, but he would nod and encourage the singing.
In June of 1994, Schneerson died.
A split in Chabad: the Meshichists and anti-Meshichists
As news of the rebbe’s death spread, erratic scenes began to play out in various Chabad communities across the world. While some people wept, others sang and danced, seeing Schneerson’s death as the final climactic twist before he reappeared as the Messiah.
The movement as a whole, however, entered a period of crisis. A number of top Chabad rabbis met to decide whether chanting “yechi” was still appropriate. Unable to reach a consensus, it was left to individuals and communities to decide for themselves.
David Lerner, who grew up Chabad in Detroit, was a child when Schneerson died, but he remembers a sense of disorientation within the community. “I remember going to the shul, and we were like: ‘What should we do now?’ Because nobody in Lubavitch really prepared for it, it seemed.”
A group of men pray during a ceremony honoring Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson in Tel Aviv, Israel on 21 June 2004. Photograph: Ariel Schalit/AP
Debates soon broke out in various Chabad communities about how to relate to Schneerson’s death. Two prominent Chabad yeshivas, those of Safed, Israel, and Detroit, Michigan, came to symbolize two opposing viewpoints: the Meshichists and anti-Meshichists. The Meshichists continued to chant “yechi” and refer to Schneerson publicly as “the king Messiah”. The anti-Meshichists accepted that Schneerson was now deceased – even if in some vague, unarticulated sense they still believed he was the Messiah.
Sam, a former Chabad Hasid who studied at the Safed yeshiva during that period but asked to be identified only by his first name, recalled how some of the Tzfati students, seeking to maintain their fervent messianic beliefs, decided they would not visit Schneerson’s gravesite. The man they proclaimed to be “the king Messiah forever and ever” couldn’t be dead and buried.
At the Chabad yeshiva in Detroit, however, a different consensus was reached. “Detroit got a reputation for being very anti, and they got it very early,” Lerner said, recalling that his father instructed him immediately after Schneerson’s death to stop referring to him as “the king Messiah”.
There was screaming and shouting, physical altercations. I remember somebody’s beard getting yanked, glasses being broken.
During the mid-to-late 90s, when the High Holy Days brought together Meshichists and anti-Meshichists at 770, the divide was not yet so clearly defined. According to Lerner: “The antis also believed the rebbe was Moshiach, but it just wasn’t discussed much,” he says. “You were expected to know without being told.”
‘They may have owned the building, but they couldn’t come in’
Among the Meshichists, the students from the Safed yeshiva – the “Tzfatim” – stood out as the most radical believers and for attempts to intimidate and harass their opponents.
During prayers and gatherings, they began to place Schneerson’s empty chair in the sanctuary to symbolize his continued presence. They also began to place his lectern in its old place during gatherings, as if setting it up for an address Schneerson was to give. At the time, these small acts weren’t particularly controversial. “It wasn’t a belief that he was physically sitting in the chair,” Sam recalled. “It was a symbolic thing.”
But trouble was brewing. Within a few years, the Meshichists, led by the Tzfatim, began to chant or sing “yechi” at gatherings. The anti-Meshichists, led by the Detroitniks, would try to silence them. Soon, fistfights began to break out.
“There were always clashes,” Lerner said. “There was screaming and shouting, sometimes physical altercations. I remember somebody’s beard getting yanked, glasses being broken.”
Sam remembers similar incidents of rising tension as both groups tried to assert their dominance over the space. “There was physical abuse, straight up fistfights. The cops came down a few times. But it wasn’t just us. The antis had the Detroitniks.”
Conflict erupted over other issues.
Two major umbrella organizations, Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, which oversees all educational and outreach activities, and Agudas Chassidei Chabad, the organization for the worldwide Chabad-Lubavitch movement, were led by the anti-Meshichists Yehuda Krinsky and Abraham Shemtov. Commonly referred to as “Merkos” and “Aguch”, the organizations jointly represented the movement’s establishment, or what some referred to jokingly as “Chabad Incorporated”. They were also the legal owners of the 770 complex – which included the synagogue, the yeshiva, the communal library, Schneerson’s former study and various communal offices and other spaces.
When Aguch decided to publish some of Schneerson’s private notes, the Tzfatim vehemently opposed it, Sam said. “We, the Tzfatim, would find the publications and dispose of them in shaimos” – the disposal method for sacred writings – “because we argued no one was allowed to read the rebbe’s private writings.” When prayer groups were started by Aguch in what had been Schneerson’s private rooms, the Tzfatim, once again, were outraged, which led to further harassment and violence. So, while Aguch and Merkos owned the complex, “we were the guys sitting in 770 and controlling it”, Sam said.
As the Tzfatim grew bolder, Krinsky and Shemtov, having legal ownership of 770, grew alarmed and tried to tamp down the Tzfatim’s growing dominance. But the Tzfatim were not without their own allies. The day-to-day caretakers at 770 were the gabbaim, or wardens, who leaned toward the Meshichists. Krinsky and Shemtov became the Tzfatim’s primary antagonists.
“When Krinsky or Shemtov would enter 770 we would attack them, verbally and physically,” Sam recalled. “We didn’t want them in 770. And then the Detroitniks would retaliate. Either way, it was the students who ran 770. Not Krinsky, not Shemtov, no one. They may have owned the building, but they couldn’t step into the main shul if the students didn’t want them there.”
A significant flashpoint centered around control of literature publication. For decades, Kehos, the movement’s main publishing arm, issued most of Chabad’s literature, including writings by previous leaders as well as prayer books and other religious works. But Kehos, too, was affiliated with the anti-Meshichists. According to Lerner: “The Meshichists needed the Kehos literature, but any mention of the rebbe had that long posthumous epitaph: ‘May the memory of the righteous and holy be blessed.’ So the Tzfatim would either tear the page out or put a sticker over it. They had to use the literature published by the other side, but they’d edit it, deface it, to fit their own reality.”
The Chabad-Lubavitch building in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, on 7 April 2020 in New York. Photograph: Mark Lennihan/AP
One notable incident in 1999 involved the defacing of a plaque that marked the cornerstone in the shul at 770. The plaque contained the epitaph “may his holy memory be blessed”, typically reserved for the deceased. In the middle of the night, two Tzfati students defaced the plaque by scratching out the offending phrase. After administrators tried to restore it, it was defaced again.
By the late 90s, the Tzfatim had achieved substantial control over 770, and the Detroitniks had, for all intents and purposes, conceded their territory. By the early 2000s, the Tzfatim grew more and more radical and their denial of the rebbe’s death grew increasingly literal, and they developed elaborate sets of rituals around the invisible rebbe.
One of the most emblematic Tzfati rituals was the creation of the “shvil”, which involved parting a crowd as if to make way for the rebbe to pass through. To the Tzfatim, the rebbe’s presence was so profound that it could almost be felt, even if unseen.
Other practices included setting up a lectern and microphone as if Schneerson were about to deliver a live talk. A recording of one of Schneerson’s past addresses would then be played, creating the illusion of a live speech.
During some gatherings, the Tzfatim began to file past the rebbe’s chair as if to receive wine from his goblet. Another practice was an imitation of Schneerson handing out dollars for recipients to give to charity, which he had done regularly during his lifetime – though even many Tzfatim thought this was going too far.
These actions created a bewildering atmosphere for those who did not share the Tzfatim’s fervor for Meshichism. It also created a sense of chaos for Crown Heights residents – even for those who were themselves Meshichist but more moderate in their views.
As Lerner put it: “Crown Heights Incorporated has leadership and hierarchy. Of course, there are conflicts, but they’re usually settled within a framework. With the Tzfatim, it was just so anarchic.”
By 2004, unable to control the Tzfatim’s radical takeover of 770, Krinsky and Shemtov decided to take legal action to regain control of the premises, filing suit against the wardens of the synagogue – the gabbaim – who they saw as giving the Tzfatim broad latitude to do as they pleased. Subsequently, the litigation dragged on with multiple appeals, and as of this writing, a final ruling is still pending.
‘The tunnels are actually a no-brainer’
Despite the tension and occasional flareups of violence, 770 remained a cherished site and a focal point for the global Chabad community. It is still well attended, especially during holidays and other important occasions, and is often immensely overcrowded. On Rosh Hashanah, the sanctuary is so full that the brief walk to the doorway for a bathroom break is a 20-minute adventure that requires climbing over tables and benches, squeezing through tightly packed throngs, and praying that your jacket buttons don’t come off in the process. The need to expand the synagogue has been widely recognized.
What’s more, expansion plans had already been drawn up under Schneerson’s direction during the 80s.
According to Yossi Newfield, a writer and journalist who has frequently written about Chabad’s messianic doctrines, Schneerson saw expanding the shul to be of messianic import. “This is the shul of Moshiach,” Schneerson had said.
Chabad-Lubavitch rabbis at a banquet at the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal in New York on 8 November 2015. Photograph: Andrés Kudacki/AP
But that vision was never completed during Schneerson’s lifetime. And following his death, expansion plans have stalled for nearly three decades, due at least in part to the ongoing litigation.
According to Newfield, the anti-Meshichists, too, want to expand. “But from their point of view,” he says, “770 has been hijacked. There’s no purpose in expanding it in its current state, and it’s not in the interest of the Chabad movement. That’s why litigation is so important. They need to evict the messianic faction.”
So far, however, that eviction effort has gone nowhere. “They went to court 20 years ago, they’re still in court 20 years later,” Newfield said.
While many in Chabad see expanding the synagogue as a practical necessity, the Tzfatim began to see in it a grander mission: the fulfillment of the rebbe’s desire to broaden and enhance “the shul of Moshiach”.
Frustrated by the lack of progress, the delay in realizing Schneerson’s vision created a sense of urgency among the Tzfati students, who decided the only way to proceed was to take matters into their own hands. It almost succeeded. In some ways it already has.
Precisely when the excavation began is somewhat unclear, but it may have started as early as 2018 and, at least by some reports, was well underway during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. Over these past few years, the students managed to excavate a wide area adjacent to the synagogue, including an access tunnel. If not for gabbaim discovering the excavations several weeks ago, the work would have continued. As of now, the excavation work has been halted, and according to some reports, the damage to the synagogue interior has been partly repaired.
But Sam, the former Tzfati, believes their project will ultimately succeed.
“What they’re doing is actually a no-brainer,” Sam says. “They need to expand, they have real problems.” And, he says: “I’d be surprised if, by next year, that whole excavation isn’t made official. I think the shul will just be de facto expanded.”
His reasoning, Sam says, is simple: ultimately, there’s no one with any authority to keep the Tzfatim from doing as they please. “Yes, the community was horrified,” he says, “but the gabbaim are powerless.” No one is in charge, Sam explains. Krinsky, whose organization owns the premises, can’t walk into the synagogue. There’s a sense in Crown Heights that the inmates are running the asylum, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. But that’s nothing new either.
“The one person who was likely the least surprised is Krinsky,” says Sam. “He’s probably saying, ‘Good morning, this has been going on for 25 years.’”
As for the diggers, Newfield says: “In their thinking, they have to complete the mission, even if it means fighting the cops and fighting the communal authorities. The King Messiah told them to do this, and he’s the higher authority.”
“To them,” he says, “the rebbe’s alive. He’s not buried in Queens. He is the king Messiah. They don’t accept the authority of the rabbis, or the community council, or of Merkos. The whole hierarchy is obliterated. The king Messiah is above all that.”
In a way, this thinking is consistent with the message Schneerson bequeathed to his followers. The Messiah will come when you have the audacity to do what it really takes to bring him.
“To them, it’s plain,” Newfield says of the diggers. “‘By smashing down these walls, we’ll force the end of the exile. We’ll force the rebbe’s return.’”
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