A few days ago, the New York Police Department discovered a network of secret tunnels under the Chabad headquarters in New York City. At the time of writing, several of the creators of said tunnels have been arrested, with many more justifying their actions, believing that the Rebbe would have approved of their devotion to the faith. Many may look at this incident with several questions. Who are these Jews? What makes them distinct from other kinds of Jews? Why were they digging tunnels? What is going on here?
To answer all of these questions, this New York City incident centers on the Chabad-Lubavitch sect of Judaism. Chabad is a part of the wider Hasidic Jewish movement, which is generally considered ultra-orthodox, meaning it holds to the original interpretations of Jewish holy texts. The name Chabad is a product of the Tree of Life, a central focus of Kabbalistic practice, and something important to the Chabad movement. Chokhmah (Ch), Binah (ab), Da’at (ad), or Wisdom, Understanding, and Knowledge, guides the specific practices and global outlook of the Chabad movement.
History of Chabad-Lubavitch
Chabad-Lubavitch was born in 1775, first in the town of Liadi, Belarus. Soon after its foundation, its headquarters were moved to what is today known as Lubavitch, Belarus. Its founder, Shneur Zalman of Liadi, founded the movement in an effort to revive what he saw as decaying hardline, mystical Judaism amongst Eastern European Jewry. For these Jews, the allure of leftist and later Bolshevist aims, such as breaking down strong nationalist states, an emphasis on tolerance, secularism, and equality, was to them the key to ending the discrimination they faced from the autocratic regimes in Moscow, Berlin, and Vienna. Shneur Zalman, on the other hand, felt that only through a Jewish revival, particularly one that focused on inner-development and mystical spirituality, would suffice in delivering unto the Jews their Messiah and ending their oppression at the hands of the Gentiles. Chabad Jews also place a heavy emphasis on the teachings within the Talmud, as well as the importance of studying, understanding and using Kabbalah. Zalman was a devout Talmudist, and his skills in religious interpretation and observance, as well as his claims to being descended from the line of King David, eventually led to him establishing Chabad-Lubavitch with himself as the first Rebbe.
The Rebbe is a title held by the leader of the Chabad movement, which has been kept within the Schneerson family line. The latest Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, was considered by many within the movement as the Jewish messiah, a claim to which some still adhere to even after his death in 1994. Many considered him to be so due to his charismatic leadership of the group. Menachem Schneerson (to be referenced going forward as The Rebbe) focused his efforts on a global education and outreach program. This effort, still seen today, is geared towards those secular Jews who have fallen away from the faith. Chabadniks believe it is a victory if Jews keep as many commandments as they can, and to live a particularly joyous and intellectual life. Chabad seeks to rekindle the Jewish faith in those who have fallen away, and they do so by establishing Chabad houses and yeshivas (Jewish religious learning centers) in populous areas. These houses, as well as the communities in which Chabad members reside, are meant to act as emissaries to the wider world on behalf of Judaism.
The Rebbe was also renowned for his success in keeping communism from winning the hearts and minds of many Jews. He taught that communism, or leftism broadly, was incompatible with the Jewish faith and that one must always place his Jewish identity above all others. In this regard, he also taught against assimilation into Gentile society through “Ahavat Yisrael,” or “love of one’s fellow Jew," which taught to be conscious of and look out for fellow Jews and to cooperatively engage with the wider world.
Influence of Chabad Today
The influence of Chabad-Lubavitch, especially in right-wing political circles and underground networks, cannot be overstated. As Lubavitchers are meant to be emissaries to the world, they particularly seek to meet with and influence Gentile leaders.
You may recall the recently elected president of Argentina, Javier Milei, as an example. Milei, a self-proclaimed anarcho-capitalist and hailed by many on the right as the “Argentine Trump," is a Gentile who is in the process of converting to Judaism. Chabad is currently playing a central role in his conversion. There are numerous Chabad houses in Buenos Aires, established on the orders of the Rebbe in the mid-to-late 20th century. Milei’s Rabbi, Tzvi Grunblatt, is a Lubavitcher and top Chabad rabbi in Argentina, as are many of the Jews he is seen being surrounded by in public. Milei has taken multiple trips to the resting site of the Rebbe, also known as the Ohel, a holy site for Chabad adherents.
Chabad also has a significant presence in Johannesburg, South Africa. The connection may not appear obvious at first. During Apartheid-era South Africa, Israel and South Africa collaborated heavily on various security projects. They held joint training operations and, most importantly, shared technology and resources for their nuclear programs. As the Apartheid regime was facing its decline and isolation in the 1970s and 1980s, many Jews were considering fleeing the country. The Rebbe made a personal trip to South Africa to ensure the Jewish community would continue to exist there. Today, Johannesburg maintains its smaller yet important Jewish communities, who no doubt were indispensable in pressuring the South African government to continue its strategic partnership with Israel throughout the late 20th century.
Russia and Ukraine
Chabad has played an important role for Russian Jewry since the times of the Soviet Union; however, its influence has grown significantly since its fall. It has enjoyed warm relations with the Putin regime. The head Chabad rabbi in Russia, Berel Lazar, has had the privilege on numerous occasions to meet with the Russian president. Putin, in an effort to differentiate himself from past Russian regimes with histories of antisemitism, welcomed Chabad as a potential ally for his regime with a historic speech and menorah lighting ceremony on Christmas in 2000. Following the occasion, Benjamin Netanyahu met with the Russian president at a local Chabad house to discuss security policy, a meeting that has taken place several times.
The war in Ukraine has muddied the waters regarding Chabad’s advances in Russia. Some, such as the chief rabbi, have kept strategically silent on the war and opted to promote peace and focus on the security of the Jews living in the two countries, of which there are many. After all, Chabad is quite active in Ukraine as well. President Zelensky met with six of the top representatives of Chabad following his election and has since maintained close relations with their communities. The stance Chabad seems to have taken regarding the war is this: the Jews must stay put. It is a top priority that the Jews who have re-emigrated to both countries stay until their Messiah comes, and so they must reach across the border and help their communities as they are affected by this war. Chabad does still seem to have influence on the Russian government even during the war, as Putin fired top Russian Security Council member Aleksey Pavlov, who described the sect as a supremacist religious cult, for its teaching on Gentiles found in the Talmud.
Some have posited that this war is a convenient way for both sides to dispose of their nationalist components, as nationalists on either side have enlisted in their respective armies, and these nationalists have proven to be a thorn in the side of the ruling regimes in either country.
Chabad-Lubavitch has had a historically complicated relationship with the state of Israel. The Rebbe was said to have walked a tightrope regarding his support for the state. He supported the Zionist cause; however, he felt that Israel was not always about the Zionist cause, as he saw the secular nature of the Israeli regime throughout much of its early years as something antithetical to true Judaism and living an authentic Jewish life. With the rise of the Israeli right, particularly the Likud party, Chabad began to support Israel as living up to its calling as the land to which the Jews must gather. Specifically, Chabad defends the Israeli settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. During the period before the finalization of the Abraham Peace Accords, many in Chabad were opposed to the deal as it promised a Palestinian state at all, which they are strongly opposed to allowing one to exist at all.
The Rebbe had enjoyed a private audience with Likud Prime Ministers during these times, such as Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, and current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The Rebbe went as far as telling Netanyahu that his reign over Israel would immediately precipitate the coming of the Messiah. Following his death, it seems Chabad has maintained the positions held by the Rebbe, dragging the Israeli right further to its own extreme positions on religious beliefs as well as geopolitical issues regarding Israel’s neighboring states, most importantly Palestine. Today, Chabad boasts over 200 Chabad Houses in Israel, and its activism there has been as strong as it has ever been.
The United States
Of course, recent events have caused many to focus on Chabad, specifically in the United States. Chabad finds its central nodes of power in New York City, northern New Jersey, Miami, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Its world headquarters are located in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, a major hotspot for Chabad activities, some of which include tunnel digging. In recent years, especially with the rise of Donald Trump, Chabad has found a home in and shared a common cause with the right-wing MAGA movement.
The most well-connected and high-profile Chabad member is, of course, Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and the man who negotiated the Abraham Accords. Kushner was a member of the Harvard Chabad On Campus group during his undergraduate year. His family has kept a close relationship, donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to their various causes, and even bought a residence close to the White House during his time as an advisor so that he and Ivanka, his wife and fellow Chabad adherent, could walk to its services.
Trump also found himself connected to Chabad through Russian Jew and mob associate Felix Sater. Sater, a managing director at the Bayrock Group, advised the Trump Organization on several real estate projects, including the Dominick, Trump International Hotel, and Midtown Miami. It is also interesting to note that Sater was the Man of the Year for the Chabad House at Port Washington in 2010 and 2014.
Broadly speaking, Chabad supports the MAGA movement because of the similar positions both parties find themselves in. The MAGA movement bills itself as an insurgent political party against a secular, left-wing establishment with the goal of transforming the American regime into a nationalist regime. In Israel, Chabad broadly supports the Likud party and its systematic dismantlement of the secular, progressive deep state and its transformation of Israeli society into a deeply religious, nationalist society. An interesting example of this connection and mutual support was the Daily Wire commentator Michael Knowles voicing support for the Chabadnik cause, something Knowles would have likely pretended to know very little about had he been asked in person about it.
Where This Is All Headed
Israel is currently positioning itself to become the center of the world. It has struck deals with both the United States and China in recent times, playing off the two global powers and reaping the benefits. The Belt and Road Initiative plans to run through Israel, as does the IMEC “Tracks for Peace” corridor, spanning Greece, the Israeli port in Haifa, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, and ending in India. It is clear that Israel will stand to gain hundreds of billions, if not trillions, with ample investment from these deals, becoming one of the richest nations on the face of the Earth by doing so. It will cement its relations with its neighbors as well as those of the three major global powers. Chabad will have a role to play in this process, acting as underground emissaries to these three nations. Although Chabad does not have the ties or influence with China like it does with America and Russia, it is likely that ties could be fostered given time and resources. After all, the countless Chabad facilities spanning the globe did not appear out of thin air. It is likely that as Israeli society takes a hard turn right as a result of October 7th and the continued transformation of the Israeli government at the hands of Likud, Chabad will become an increasingly important partner of the Israeli government in its relations with foreign nations.
Other Chabad Quirks and Oddities
This article would not be complete without some sort of tie-in to the Chabad tunnels underneath Crown Heights. This is not an isolated incident. Chabad Jews have something of a history when it comes to scandalous, shady, and even downright criminal activities over the years. Take Aryeh Goodman of the East Brunswick Chabad Organization in New Jersey. In 2018, it was announced he would serve a 10-year sentence minimum for child sex trafficking charges. The man served an 18-month sentence in jail with a supervised release. Further back, in 1989, a money laundering scheme spanning the United States, Colombia, and Israel was broken up by federal law enforcement, and the chief assistant to the head of the scheme, Nir Goldeshtein, was a Chabadnik. Two associates of Goldeshtein who were never arrested, Rabbi Sholom Levitin and Baruch Zeltzer, both fled to Israel to escape charges. In East Asia, the Chabad House of Bangkok has long been suspected to be part of the Israeli mafia, smuggling drugs into the country on its behalf. Many anti-Chabad Jews allege the organization is responsible for child kidnappings, disappearances, and tax evasion schemes.
Chabad has become a staple of the Jewish phenomenon both in the United States and around the world. In the United States, its activities only seem to gain more traction, with 38% of all Jews in the country interacting with the organization in some capacity. It is likely to see an increase in converts considering the significant rightward shift in Israeli society, as well as the diaspora Jews are experiencing. Keep an eye on Chabad in the upcoming years; it will no doubt play an important role in the development of the global situation.