Jan 16, 2024 9:00 AM
Last week, after underground tunnels were discovered near the Chabad-Lubavitch synagogue in Crown Heights and attempts by synagogue officials to perform repairs were prevented by a group of yeshiva students, a mini-riot broke out when police showed up to restore order. In photos and videos that spread like wildfire across the digital world, a group of rowdy yeshiva students was seen smashing down a wall at the most cherished site of the Chabad movement.
The incident made headlines and primetime TV news from New York 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 the address of the complex’s iconic building 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.”
Named after the city of Tzfat — or Safed, Israel — from which many of these students hail, the group, and some others aligned with it, have a three-decade reputation for numerous incidents of violence and mayhem in and around the Chabad headquarters at 770. In the parlance of Chabad factionalism, they are said to be the most extremist among the Meshichist — or messianist — faction, believing that their late leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson is the Messiah, and despite his death in 1994, is still meant to reappear as the long-awaited redeemer of the Jews. In fact, some deny his very death.
The underground excavations, it now appears, are the latest in a long string of incidents of anarchy and lawlessness by this group.
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 Schneerson 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, Schneerson 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.
As news of the rebbe’s death spread, schizophrenic 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.”
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 Safed 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 [Meshichist], 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.”
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.”
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.
Over time, some students began to institute practices stemming from their fervent messianic beliefs. 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.
“I remember 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.”