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Society

13 Men Plead Not Guilty to Role in Brooklyn Synagogue Tunnel Scuffle

NEW YORK (AP) — Thirteen members of the Hasidic Jewish community pleaded not guilty Wednesday to charges stemming from their alleged role in a dispute over an illegal tunnel built beneath a historic Brooklyn synagogue.

The defendants, many of them international students from Israel, appeared in Brooklyn court Wednesday on charges of reckless endangerment, criminal mischief and obstruction of governmental administration. They were issued a limited protection order that bars them from making any excavations or alterations to the building. They also cannot be in contact with a local rabbi.

Prosecutors say the defendants — who ranged in age from 19 to 26 — were involved in a Jan. 8 melee in the basement of the global headquarters of Chabad-Lubavitch, a movement of Orthodox Judaism. The dispute erupted after the discovery of an underground passage connecting four buildings within the famed Jewish complex.

Proponents of the tunnel said they were carrying out the wishes of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the former Chabad leader and one of Judaism’s most influential leaders, who spoke of expanding the densely packed worship space before his death in 1994. Some members of the Chabad community believe Schneerson is still alive and that he is the messiah.

When Chabad leaders moved to seal the tunnel, characterizing it as a rogue act of vandalism, a group of young men fought back, ripping the wooden siding off the synagogue and refusing to leave the dusty passage. Their protest escalated as police arrived, leading to a chaotic scuffle and more than $1,500 in property damage, according to court papers.

None of the men who were charged in the brawl were accused of digging the passage, which authorities described as a linear tunnel that was 60 foot (18.3 meters) long and 8 foot (2.4 meters) wide. In addition to the 13 people who pleaded not guilty on Wednesday, four others are expected to face charges when they return from Israel in the coming weeks.

An investigation by the Department of Buildings found the tunnel, which has since been filled with concrete, compromised the stability of several structures surrounding the religious complex, leading to vacate orders at four buildings.

A two-story building adjacent to the synagogue remains subject to a vacate order due to the removal of fire-separating materials, according to a spokesperson for the buildings department.

An attorney for the defendants, Levi Huebner, did not respond to a request for comment Thursday. He previously said his clients were suffering from “a combination of a little naivete and misintended good thoughts.”

Rabbi Motti Seligson, a spokesperson for the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, said in a text message: “We pray that they see the error of their ways and atone for the harm that they have caused.”


By JAKE OFFENHARTZ Associated Press

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