When (if?) you walk into a major retailer, be it Whole Foods, Express, or Apple, you are likely to be attracted in a specific direction, like most other folks. The direction you are pulled in is not an accident so much as the product of millions of dollars worth of research into lighting, spacing, use of color, sound, product organization, and signage. As it happens, there is enough demand to have created the need for specialized store designers and their accompanying professional organizations.
About a year ago when i started writing this post (before i totally got overwhelmed with workflow) Eli K-S encouraged me to write down some of the guiding principles and minor logistical issues that go into a well prepared davening space. We will never spend a dollar on improving the design, but I am certainly interested in using our collective brainpower to effectively consider the small nuances they way the folks due when they build a hotel lobby, a supermarket, or a cafe. What follows is a practical and values-driven approach to designing prayer spaces.

Unlike the retail establishment our chief goal is to create a meaningful experience, rather than to create sales in the near and far terms. The goals, though, may not be as different as they initially appear. That said, i don’t intend to wander into the discussion about whether marketing analysis ought to be used in creating religious community. For more on that you can check out this WSJ article and r. daniel brenner’s excellent response.
Since our goal isn’t to sell stuff we need to set up our spaces differently than commercial spaces are designed. The design of our space, at its most artful, would evoke our values and create the sort of experience we envision. Any discussion of designing a space should begin with a discussion of the values we hope to realize therein.
There are several values issues that impact whether a community chooses to use the Single Direction Approach (SDA), the Circle Approach (CA), or some other approach. I discussed some of those issues here and BZ responds here.This post will primarily deal, not with which approach is preferable but how to implement each in a way which maximizes vibrancy, inclusiveness, ease of movement, intimacy/anonymity, and Al Tifrosh Min Hatzibur (ATMH–don’t set yourself off from the community). You can skip the next section on the principles. I say a word on them because I am using some of the terms in a way that may not be intuitive, so I wanted to explain my usage before I utilize them in discussing different aspects of different setups.
A word on the principles:
Vibrancy (V) is the quality and intensity of sound (and emotional energy i suppose). it is connected with the singing output and the space in which it is contained. Singing output (SO) varies directly with vibrancy whereas space, generally, varies inversely. When space is held constant, and as SO increases so does V. When SO is held constant and space grows then V decreases. To create the most vibrancy it is useful to get many people in not much space. At some point, though, the gains peter out because people get claustrophobic or otherwise overwhelmed, but that is a much less common challenge than having too much space.
Inclusiveness has to do with how easily new folks can enter the system and feel comfortable. If the congregation is oriented towards the only entrance and one enters though it, the experience will usually be highly uncomfortable due to feeling like everyone is looking at you. This might cause some folks to be set on edge and diminish from their experience. If a person can’t find a prayer book due to the layout and hasn’t brought one, this too is likely to cause discomfort. If a person doesn’t feel part of the community, of course, this is at odds with this value.
Ease of Movement (EoM) is important so that folks can go to the bathroom, choose a new davening location, or move for any other reason without causing an undue disturbance on others. Much EoM is preferable for the non-mover as s/he is less likely to be disturbed and it is also good for the person who wishes to move as they can go where they want without worrying about the impacts to others. Too much EoM can impact Vibrancy as it requires dissipating people and their energy.
Intimacy is directly at odds with Anonymity. Some communities value a communal feel where those gathered to pray can exchange smiles with there brothers and sisters in the community. Other prayer groups prefer a model where one needn’t be concerned with those sorts of connection and can come and go without needing to engage directly with other folks. This situation makes it easier to focus on one’s own sense of spirituality according to this model.
Lastly the idea of al tifrosh min hatzibur (do not separate yourself from the community) is very important to thinking about where the leader should be.
Now on to actually putting some chairs out.
On The Location of Chairs and Aisles:
Single-Direction SDA Seating
In this model the seats are setup to all face the same way. I generally set them up with an aisle down the center. It is a bad idea for EoM reasons to have long rows without aisles. Though if you set up too many aisles it impacts Vibrancy by reducing the density of daveners. I find the magic number is 7: try to avoid having more than 7 chairs without an aisle. when i follow this guideline, it means that no one is more than three people away from an aisle, and most people are less. Where exactly you put the aisles is dependent on how wide your space is.
For Inclusiveness reasons, it is important to avoid having the room oriented in the direction of the main door. It may seem obvious, but it is a very awkward experience to walk into a room of people praying and to feel as though everyone’s eyes are on you. If you use a Circle Approach, then this is a non-issue as no more than a third of people can be facing any given direction. Sometimes the spaces we all use have multiple entrances. If this is the case, it is fine to have a door on the wall towards which everyone is oriented. However, it is wise to route people to an alternate door. In addition to their own embarrassment, having people stream into the front of the room is problematic insofar as it is distracting to the folks who are already in the room.
Traditionally, Jewish prayer is oriented eastward. [Of course, the word oriented comes from the orientum /orins, , latin for east]. This is a nice starting point to figure out how to design your space in the room. I have no expertise on the halachic or historic origins of that tradition though it seems there is some flexibility built in when the Mishnah discusses it initially. Generally you can accomplish the outcome where you face east but don’t have people enter right in front.
Figuring out where the davening facilitator (Shaliah tzibur–Sh”Tz) should stand in this setup is a tough challenge with no easy answer. If the leader stands in front of the front row, at the center of the room, facing the same direction as the congregation (back to congregation), than it is difficult for the leader to easily discern the reaction of the community and more challenging for the community to pick up on subtle changes in tempo or volume or even tune switches put forth by the Sh”Tz. If the Sh”Tz stands in the front, at the center, but faces the congregation (as in many synagogues) then we have issues with ATMH, as we’ve created a separation from the community underscoring a difference between the leader and the community. My limited knowledge and experience with the sefardi world leads me to believe they have another common traditional setup which involves a leader in the middle of the room. perhaps our friend ChorusofApes will tell us more about these possibilities. Needless to say, in the single direction seating approach the Sh”Tz can setup in the middle of the room either in a seat or at a shtender (lecturn) in the main aisle.
There are a few important caveats on setting the leader up in the middle of the room facing the same direction as the congregation. If you have a shtender, do not initially put it in the middle!! There is a bizarre rule of human behavior which dictates that in any SDA davening setting no one will sit in front of the Sh”Tz. If you setup three rows back, the front two rows will be empty. It is much better to put the shtender in the front of the room and then move it back once the seats have been filled in. This way, inertia will keep the front rows occupied.
A few additional thoughts on SDA Seating:

  • Prayer books should be placed by the door where most people enter. If there are multiple doors where people enter, prayer books should be placed at all locations.
  • It is highly advisable to have a person (greeter) seated by the most trafficed entrance. That person should say hello, answer any questions and give folks entering a prayer book turned to the correct page (perhaps even the one they have been using).
  • Before services start it is good to try to get folks to move forward to seats closer to the front as later arrivals will feel awkwardly about moving there during the services as they will feel all eyes are upon them. General announcement are almost always ineffective for accomplishing this goal. Speaking to individual community members is likely to be more successful.
  • Place rows closer together than seems intuitive. you only need ~18″ between the front of one seat and the back of the one in front of it. The person’s head will as a result be more like 3′ from the other persons head. This will make more sense when you try it out. Actually sit in the chair to figure out if it is too cramped. Putting rows too far away will impact Vibrancy. Any closer than 14″ is tough for EoM.

CA Seating

When the community uses Circle seating many principles from SDA can still be used:

  • Prayer books by all entrances.
  • Greeter is great.
  • Moving folks who arrive early further towards the middle.
  • The aisles are a bit more complicated but the same rule of 7 should still work.

There are many differences:

  • The Sh”Tz can sit close to the middle of the circle and avoid the challenges in determining where an SDA leader should positions herself.
  • You don’t need to worry as much about where people enter the room.

It is critical to have a minimum of deadspace in the middle of the most central of the circles (which should never be called the “Inner Circle” for al tifrosh min hatzibur reasons). This is very important. Make the circle artificially small or vibrancy will take a nosedive. If you want to have a circle of people sitting on the floor in the middle, you might wish to only fill in 270 degrees or some of the circle to make it easy for them to get the the middle and have it not feel claustrophobic. It is very important if you leave a lot of space for people sitting in the middle to very actively insure that the space is filled. This is very hard to do and if you aren’t comfortable with strongly encouraging folks early on the actually fill in the middle you are better off making the middle circle our of chairs. I find 6 works well. Make sure there are at least a couple strong daveners directly adjacent to the Sh”Tz (i suppose this is also the case with SDA seating).
I hope these thoughts have been helpful, i hope to update them at some point. Please use comments to ask questions, propose alternatives, and comment in any other ways but I especially encourage us to work together towards identifying some best practices.