Feb 8, 2024 3:20 PM
The unauthorized excavations discovered at 770, the Chabad headquarters in Crown Heights, have largely faded from the news. The story, while initially sensationalist, turned out to be banal, mostly related to an internal dispute about whether to expand the Chabad synagogue — which a group of yeshiva students decided to secretly do on their own.
But Dom Lucre, a Twitter influencer and right wing conspiracy theorist, was not done with it, and he took advantage of an activist to further his own insidious agenda.
Lucre, whose real name is Dominick McGee, decided to produce a documentary to amplify a conspiracy theory that had circulated on social media by trolls like him: the “tunnels,” he claims — in plural, despite it being only one short passage — were used to abuse children in some twisted PizzaGate-like child sex trafficking ring.
And one formerly Haredi activist, Manny Waks, unwittingly participated in the documentary and was later stunned to discover how he had been used.
“I didn’t think for a moment they’d be misusing this interview for a conspiracy,” Waks told Shtetl.
Waks has done hundreds of interviews since first sharing about his experience of being sexually abused as a child by two staff members at his Chabad yeshiva in Melbourne, Australia. He has assisted the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, an Australian government initiative. In recent months, however, he’s avoided doing interviews, partly because he’s busy with an ongoing legal case against his alleged abuser and also because it’s been painful to keep revisiting his trauma.
But when a person named Mable Norton reached out to him for an interview for their “research paper” with an accompanying video on the topic of sexual abuse, he decided to do it.
“I didn’t do my due diligence,” he said, committing what he now sees to be a “professional mistake.”
For an hour straight, Waks was on fire. With little prompting from the host, a different woman by the name of Lauren Witzke, he spoke movingly about his own painful experience of being abused as a child, and his journey from suffering in silence to becoming an outspoken advocate on this issue. He offered nuanced perspectives on community reactions and also highlighted what has improved in recent years.
When the host casually asked him at the very end what he thought about the tunnels at 770, he pointed out that what he saw in the video was “lawlessness,” which automatically puts children at risk. If a group of adolescents could excavate a space beneath a building and it can go undetected for several years, what does that tell us about children in that building being monitored and protected?
The host appeared to be satisfied. All in all, Waks thought he’d completed another substantive interview on the topic of child sexual abuse. The host repeatedly assured Waks that she’d want to link to his website and other resources available to victims.
There was no reason to suspect something was off.
About a week and a half after doing the interview, Waks received a link to a “documentary” entitled “The Tunnels.”
It was then that Waks discovered that the interview was done not for Lauren Witzke, the personable woman he spoke to. Rather, it was for a documentary produced by Lucre, to further a harmful conspiracy theory and an abjectly false narrative.
“I’m still recovering from the shock,” Waks emailed the film producers, according to a transcript of the email exchange posted to his blog. “You lied to me,” he wrote. He’d been told him the film was about giving voice to victims of sexual abuse. Instead, it was a sinister ploy in service of a pernicious lie.
“They disrespected themselves and disrespected victims of sexual abuse,” Waks told Shtetl regarding Lucre and those who assisted him.
“The Tunnels is not a documentary,” Waks wrote in a statement on his blog, along with a link to an unedited version of the interviews. “It is a conspiracy theory. There is absolutely no evidence to support Dom’s outrageous and baseless claims.”
Waks was not the only one duped by Lucre. Lucre and his videographer were invited into 770 by community members, and in the film they are seen strolling freely about the synagogue and chatting with people for some time before someone finally escorted him out.
Lucre’s conspiracy narrative isn’t very thorough. It’s as if he judges his audience to be so gullible that he doesn’t need to try very hard. At one point, his camera is lowered to the grates adjacent to the synagogue — from which an adolescent Chabad boy had been seen emerging in a video that went viral several weeks ago. The film then shows what appears to be a dingy room, then cuts to Lucre walking dark and dirty streets, giving the impression that he got access to the area underneath the synagogue — which he hadn’t. He then points to a small-sized coat, as if to confirm the child trafficking claim. Further in the documentary, Lucre is seen walking on train tracks in underground railroad tunnels. He’s “in the tunnels,” he tells the viewer — falsely pretending they were the same ones discovered at the Chabad synagogue. He points to various spray-painted messages on the walls, as if they tell some gruesome tale of child sacrifices taking place there.
To a credulous outsider, this may all look real. To those susceptible to believing antisemitic conspiracy theories, this may confirm the most outlandish and hateful rumors out there, about Jews building child-trafficking tunnels beneath New York’s streets.
Waks told Shtetl he’d been approached by several attorneys who encouraged him to file a defamation lawsuit, and he told Shtetl he’s not ruling it out.
Shtetl reached out to Lucre, Witzke, and Norton, and none responded to a request for comment.