On January 19, the New York Court of Appeals ruled on the ownership of the shul at 770 Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights, Brooklyn—also known simply as 770—that could determine the future of the worldwide Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement. Since the 1994 death of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the seventh and final leader of the Lubavitcher Hasidic sect, two factions of his followers have been caught in a tumultuous legal battle only complicated by their interpretations of the Rebbe’s wishes. The January 19 decision was made just eleven days after nine yeshiva students were arrested for getting in an altercation with the police in front of 770. The students had blockaded the shul from construction workers attempting to seal off an illegally excavated tunnel under the shul.
Chabad’s long legal battle over 770
Chabad Lubavitch is a branch of Orthodox Hasidic Judaism which started in Lubavitch, Russia, in 1775. In 1940, Chabad’s headquarters moved to New York City, and since then, Chabad has grown into one of the largest Jewish movements in the world with over 5,000 Chabad Lubavitch centers worldwide and an extensive publishing arm and online presence. Hasidic movements often revolve around a charismatic rabbi, or rebbe, who serves as spiritual leader. Schneerson, often seen as one of the most influential Jews of the 20th century—led Chabad from the early 1950s until his death in 1994.
Today, Chabad Lubavitch’s main public-facing initiatives are organized by Agudas Chassidei Chabad (Agudas)—which sets the policies and initiatives for the Chabad movement. On its website, Agudas defines itself as “the pre-eminent Chabad body to which all other Chabad institutions and organizations around the globe are connected, and which is responsible for representing them to the outside world and for coming to their aid when they are in distress.” They write that Schneerson left the organization all of his possessions when he died, and that he personally instructed some of his followers to make the organization in order to “combine all Chabad Chassidim into a single group and to promote their soul-bond with the source of their spiritual vitality”—namely their rebbes and their teachings. Agudas is headed by Rabbi Avraham I. Shemtov. Chabad’s educational arm in charge of coordinating educational outreach worldwide, Merkos L’inyonei Chinuch (Merkos), is directed by Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky and Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky and also received Schneerson’s imprimatur for its initiatives on college campuses and online.
Meanwhile, the actual shul at 770—which has great spiritual significance to Lubavitcher Hasids for being the former home of Schneerson—has been under the control of Congregation Lubavitch, Inc. (CLI), and the shul’s caretakers, also known as the Gabboim—Zalmar Lipser and Avrohom Holtzberg. CLI and Agudas/Merkos have been locked in legal battles over control of the shul for 20 years, with the case circulating through different courts with different judges delivering different rulings. Most recently, on January 19, the New York Court of Appeals granted ownership rights of all the buildings associated with 770 Eastern Parkway to Agudas and Merkos while simultaneously overturning a civil court decision by ruling that the Gabboim could not be evicted.
These legal battles are inflected by religious differences about whether Schneerson was the—or a—Jewish messiah. When Schneerson became the rebbe in 1951, he told the public that their generation would bring forth the messiah, and in 1991, he said that Jews must continue to do everything in their power to make this a reality because their mission had not been accomplished yet. Chabad adherents have had different understandings of Schneerson’s public address, with some believing Schneerson was implicitly declaring himself the messiah and others interpreting his remarks as more of a general call to action. Since then, a divide has persisted inside Chabad for nearly 30 years between “Meshichists,” who believe Schneerson is the messiah and still physically alive, and “anti-Meshichists” who dispute that belief.
The court case concerning 770’s ownership has also stalled efforts to accomplish Schneerson’s deeply personal goal to expand 770, which he iterated in his text Beis Rabbineu Shebibavel when he called on every Jewish man and woman to get involved in 770’s expansion. According to Rabbi Gershon Avtzon, the founder and Rosh Yeshiva of the Yeshivas Lubavitch Cincinnati, legitimate efforts at expansion have stalled for years because of the legal expenses over the contested ownership of the building. Expansion seems impossible for the foreseeable future, and the tunnel has also undermined the efforts of official organizations like 770 Expand to grow 770 through legitimate ways. The tunnels appear to have been dug by a group of Meshichists from Tzfat, Israel, known as the Tzvatim, who have reportedly been protected by the Gabboim and allowed free reign in the shul at 770. The discovery in January of the 60 feet long by 8 feet wide tunnel caused the NYC Department of Buildings to issue a vacate order for 770.
The New York Court of Appeals’ ruling on the fate of the shul at 770 brings, for the time being, an end to a conflict that has left Chabad rattled for the last 20 years. The executive director of the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council, Rabbi Eli Cohen, who supports the Gabboim/CLI, told COLlive.com the Gabboim will comply with the court order now that the case is resolved and looked forward to working with Agudas/Merkos to restore order to the shul.
The bigger picture for Chabad
Chabad’s internal divisions have consequences that go beyond 770’s expansion efforts and the court case. The tunnel’s exposure has brought negative publicity to Chabad even though most of its members don’t identify with the extreme actions of the Tzfatim yeshiva students. The issue has also prompted a slew of antisemitic conspiracy theories purporting to explain what the true purpose of the tunnel was. Conspiracy theorists went to X to accuse Jews of having built the tunnels to participate in satanic rituals or child trafficking, with some users speaking about baby strollers or mattresses found in the tunnels to support their baseless claims. One user with 144.5k followers said the ordeal gave “strong ‘Simon of Trent’ vibes,” referring to a murder case in 1475 that set off a surge of antisemitism after Jews were falsely accused of blood libel.
The Center for Extremism at the Anti-Defamation League called the circulating posts, which drew parallels to Hamas’s tunnels in Gaza and accused Jews of being both above the law and involved in trafficking, extremely pernicious for fueling antisemitic rumors. Chabad’s spokesperson, Motti Seligson, told the Associated Press that the sensationalism running rampant online is only making a situation that is already “immensely painful” for Chabad and the Jewish community worse.