Which way does your synagogue's Ark face?
By Stacey Dresner
STATEWIDE -- During daily services in the Beit Midrash of Yeshiva University, some students face east toward Jerusalem when they pray. Others face the Ark, which is located on the north wall of the room. Still others pray on the diagonal to hedge their bets a little.
When Rabbi Zvi Engel of Ahavath Achim in Fairfield studied at YU, he faced the Ark when he davened during the three daily prayer services.
"My rabbi there felt that in the beit midrash we should face the Ark -- out of respect for the Torah," Engel said. "There were other reputable and pious scholars who felt otherwise and felt it wouldn't be a slander to face east [toward Jerusalem]. For me, that encapsulates the diversity of that institution."
At Ahavath Achim, Engel has no such concerns. Both of the Arks in the synagogue -- the one in the main sanctuary and the one in the smaller chapel -- are located on eastern walls, so that the congregation can pray facing Israel.
Which way does your synagogue's Ark face?
According to the Talmud, a synagogue's Ark n like the ones in Engel's shul -- should be located on the eastern wall n actually more like southeastern -- so that when the congregation prays, they are facing n and praying n toward the temple in Jerusalem.
But what if your Ark just happens to be on another wall?
That is the case at Congregation Beth El-Keser Israel (BEKI) in New Haven, where the Ark in the main sanctuary is located on the western wall.
Rabbi Jon-Jay Tilsen of BEKI said that he thinks that when the synagogue was built in 1959, the eastern side of the lot faced a neighboring church.
"They might have thought it would be strange to look out while praying and see a church, although I am sure they felt happy to have a church as a neighbor," Rabbi Tilsen conjectured. "The alternative is that they might have thought that architecturally, this would be better."
And BEKI is not alone.
Several other synagogues around the state have Arks that are not located on the eastern wall of their sanctuaries.
"In the 50s, 60s and 70s, people often oriented synagogues based on other considerations," like architecture and the topography of the lot, said Rabbi Shlomo Yaffe of Congregation Agudas Achim, an Orthodox shul in West Hartford.
At Agudas Achim, one Ark faces northeast, and the other faces south.
"It bothers me, but what are you going to do?" Yaffe shrugged. "It is not something that you have to change. You can pray to toward the Ark."
Ancient rabbinic rules
Stephen Fraade, professor of the history of Judaism at Yale University, said that the idea that the Ark of a synagogue should be located on the eastern wall and that Jews should pray facing the temple in Jerusalem goes as far back as the Book of Daniel from the 5th century BCE.
"This meant that in the Galilee, they faced south, in Babylonia they faced west, and even in Jerusalem it depended on where they were in relation to the temple," Fraade said.
But Fraade admits that even back in rabbinic times, "the rules the rabbis set weren't always followed."
Archeological studies of early synagogues show that even in ancient times, the members of synagogues often ignored the rules rabbis had for building synagogues and built their Arks wherever they pleased.
"Then as now, if synagogues are owned by anyone they are owned by the community or by members, and often the people with money have more to say than the rabbi," Fraade said.
A member of BEKI, Fraade said it would be nice if the Ark was located on the eastern wall, but both he and Rabbi Tilsen stressed that reorienting the sanctuary would be too big n and expensive n an undertaking.
"Would I rather be praying toward Jerusalem? Yes. Am I going to leave my synagogue because of that? No," Fraade said.
Turn to the
Rabbi Yitzchok Adler of Beth David Synagogue in West Hartford explains the custom of facing east to daven this way:
"If you were to lay it out, it would be like a map with the sides of the ancient temple at the epicenter and all of the temples around the world would be in circles around it."
Except, even at Beth David, which is Modern Orthodox, "the Ark does not technically face due east," Adler said. "The building predates me and I cannot say why."
Adler's advice for worshippers whose Arks are not located in the easterly direction, is to "rise for important prayers and turn and face Jerusalem" n a practice he admits to doing.
"I do slightly, almost indiscernibly, turn more towards the east," Adler explained.
Even B'nai Israel in Bridgeport, which was designed by renowned synagogue designer Percival Goodwin in the 1950s has an Ark that is located on the south wall of the sanctuary.
"We face Miami," joked Rabbi James Prosnit, who leads the Reform congregation.
Prosnit said that he has tried to research why the building was designed this way, but there seems to be no record.
"I don't think it was an anti-Zionist statement. I think it was just an architectural decision that no congregant or rabbi thought to override," he said. "I am one who understands the givens of the time, so I am not judgmental about it. If we were to construct a new synagogue or sanctuary I think we would probably want to consider putting it on the eastern wall."
Which is what the designers of B'nai Israel did when they constructed a new sanctuary and chapel as part of the Walzer Family Community Campus in Southbury three years ago.
B'nai Israel n the result of a merger between Temple Israel in Waterbury and B'nai Chaim in Southbury -- joined forces with the Jewish Communities of Western Connecticut to build a $6.5 million complex that included the sanctuary, the offices of the Federation and Jewish Family Service.
In the building where the congregation had been for five years prior n a former dance studio n the Ark was on the northeast wall, due to "pre-existing conditions," said Rabbi Eric Polokoff.
When building the new sanctuary, there were several things that the building committee wanted: the use of wood and Jerusalem stone in the sanctuary, a window in the sanctuary n and an Ark on the east wall.
"There were things on the list that were optional and things that were a must," Polokoff explained. "A window and facing east were on the must list."
For those who are not about to build a new synagogue or renovate their old one to face east, Rabbi Yaffe of Agudas Achim has this advice.
"Even if the Ark is not oriented toward Jerusalem, you should orient your heart toward the land of Israel and think about the Temple."
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