We only use the lectern on the bimah for the Days of Awe (1100-1400 worshippers). For reasons of intimacy we use a portable lectern for Shabbat (50-150) and Festivals. The lectern and the individual movable chairs are on the same level floor. It works well for intimacy. It can be turned around and the top of it can be tilted so that the Torah is nearly vertical. This way the congregation has a better view of it; this is particularly useful during special readings (e.g.-- Song at the Sea).
The drawback is that the sightlines are level; we are looking over people's heads to see the Rabbi. This is true in any room with a level floor. It would work better if the floor were slightly pitched.
Max 550 Member Units
Our rabbi attempted to make things more intimate and placed a round table on the "floor" level, to be used occasionally for Torah readings. Some congregants liked the feeling of being closer to the Torah -- others felt uncomfortable being that close. Still others objected because they couldn't see as well.
On the evening before the Shabbat service at which my daughter celebrated becoming a Bat Mitzvah, we discovered that my father (whose mobility is impacted by a muscle disease) was unable to ascend the bimah by the steps in the front or by the ramp on the side (just too steep). At the last moment we had to change the "choreography" of passing the Torah from generation-to-generation, by doing this on "floor" level rather than up in front of the ark. We also moved the aliyot and the reading of the Torah to the "floor" level table. This meant that all the participants in the Torah service were more crowded together, and that my daughter had to deal with a hand-held mike (as opposed to the microphone mounted on the Rabbi's lectern). The result? We heard over and over again how intimate and meaningful the service was, especially the Torah reading.
Beth 650 Families
For those unsure of which seats to install in their sanctuary, I would advise: chairs first, pews second and theater seats last choice (especially if they are attached to the floor and hard to move). When the first child has an accident or someone gets sick, you will wish you had seats that were easy to move so you can clean the floor.
When I have been at synagogues with theater seats most people leave one seat open between families. People generally don't like to be that close together. In pew seats people can easily leave a few inches between them selves and the next. Individual moveable chairs are best -- in case you want to try some thing new with the seating arrangements.
We have pews at our synagogue and they are not comfortable for sitting more than about an hour. We are currently looking into padding them. No one should underestimate the need for physical comfort in worship settings.
Carol 20 Families
When we renovated our sanctuary some twelve years ago, the most significant and positive change was lowering the bimah, thereby bringing the clergy closer to the congregation, and vice versa. If we were to renovate today, I personally would probably consider lowering the bimah even further and would love to explore flexible seating which would enable us to change the seating configuration. Our fixed, theatre-style seating makes it impossible to see the faces of other worshippers during services, which in my mind diminishes the experience.
George 850 members
Our sanctuary (about 250 seats) has individual chairs instead of permanent pews. We place the chairs in a semicircle for small attendance services. Chairs are placed perpendicular to the bimah when wide aisles are needed, such as Simchat Torah and Purim. Chairs may be more costly than pews but are more flexible and much more comfortable.
EKD 426 membership units
Our congregation is in our new (one-year old) home. What really works for us is flexible seating. We can expand or contract based on the type of service we have and can easily grab extra chairs if we underestimated the number of people at a service. Our chairs have clips on the sides so they can be attached to one another whenever we want. Our sanctuary also serves as a social hall, so that's an additional benefit to flexible seating.
The downside is that there's no place on our seats to store prayer books. Our prayer books are located in an open bookcase in the foyer. This doesn't work well for visitors who might expect to find a prayer book at their seats.
We've turned that negative into a positive by finding a friendly group of volunteers who take turns greeting congregants and guests, and by placing prayer books on a library cart at the entrance to the sanctuary.
Paula 390 members
We built our first building a few years ago. We had many discussions and focus groups on what our worship space should like like. We ended up with a beautiful space with a large window that looks out onto woods. We can move our reading table up on the bimah or down on the floor, depending on how many are attending worship and how intimate an atmosphere we want to create.
It's truly a lovely space, with many innovative features. The one thing I wish we had done differently involves our seating. It's fixed. Everyone faces the bimah. For healing worship, we can set up a circle of chairs on the bimah in front of the ark because of the small number of participants, but we're stuck with fixed, forward-facing pews. It would be nice to be able to rearrange the seating.
Robin 620 membership units
We only use the lectern on the bimah for the High Holy Days (1100-1400 worshippers). For reasons of intimacy we use a portable lectern for Shabbat (50-150 worshippers) and festivals.
The lectern and the individual movable chairs are on the same level floor. It works well for intimacy. It can be turned around and the tiltable top raised so that the Torah is nearly vertical and viewable by the congregation on special occasions.
The drawback is that the sightlines are level; we are looking over peoples' heads to see the rabbi. This is true in any room with a level floor. It would work better if the floor was slightly pitched.
Max 550 member units
As someone in the congregation who often leads services in the rabbi's absence, I am always interested in enhancing the prayer experience for myself and those in attendance. In recent years we have encouraged the rabbi and others leading to try some different chair arrangements and set up for certain services. In addition, in this current year without a rabbi in place, we have continued experimenting as lay leaders have covered services. This has been very positive and helpful for my own prayer experience as I prefer to see the faces and bodies of others when I am in communal worship. As chair of our Religious Practices Committee I would like to raise the issue of sanctuary arrangement to the committee for consideration and discussion. It seems that most weeks we are rearranging chairs when in fact perhaps we should consider doing it permanently. My dilemma seems to be that I would like it to be an informed choice and would like the committee to consider it with some knowledge before making a decision.
With all of that said, is there anyone who has made such a decision and how did it come about? Is there a piece of text that we could look at as a committee or some books that would help us with worship space (I know there are, I am just looking for direction) and how to decide what we want the arrangement to be? In addition, we are also beginning to study b'nei mitzvah as community events and how to encourage them to be so. Does anyone know of anything we can look at for that? Those kinds of changes (around b'nei mitzvah services) will be very difficult since the congregation is very entrenched in what has been done for so many years. Rene 250 families
Try Larry Hoffman's The Art of Public Prayer. There are also some articles reprinted in the Iv'du B' Simchah curriculum that you can get from the Union's Web site at www.urj.org/worship/letuslearn. Marzy
Rene's question raises some interesting questions:
How much leeway do you have in setting up the seating in your temple? How would it affect the conduct of services? Can the rabbis make those adjustments? Can the congregants (!!!) make them?
In Rene's case, I think it is great that they are asking the questions while they are doing a search. It will open them, and their new rabbi to all sorts of options.
In our case, we have a 1913 sanctuary with benches. So there are no real chances to re-orient the place. There's also a high bimah. The rabbis move comfortably on it, but for newcomers it must be an adjustment.
Another place (in the New York area) where I go when I'm there has moved the whole room ninety degrees, so the Ark is on the long wall and the place is much wider than it is long. A very interesting change, and one that I like, personally. Fred 900 member units
We have the luxury of the sanctuary and a multipurpose room of somewhat similar size. Our sanctuary is used only as a place of worship or study. No conflicts, no issues, no other use. Simple and it works for us. Stuart
In our congregation we have, over the years, hosted a wide range of programs, lectures, concerts, etc., but our board approves each one. All have been "serious" or artistic in tone--if not, we use our social hall. Tom 140 Families
For those who don't have the luxury of an alternate space, common sense remains the best guide for the use of the sanctuary. Chances are, if it shouldn't happen in the sanctuary, it shouldn't happen in the temple at all.
We once had a protest from an influential member after a Theo Bikel concert, because of the secular nature of most of the music. The member recognized that having Bikel was kosher, and that there was no other place in the building for a performance of this type, but said we should at least have put a screen in front of the ark. My comment: God can see and hear through the screen. More recently, though, we have used a screen at the request of our guest speaker Elie Wiesel.
The...formula as articulated by Stuart seems constituted to work well--unless the question arises, Is or is not such and such a program "study." Larry 1350 member units (Sanctuary seats 1400, social hall perhaps 800 when set up auditorium style)
June 2007 Digest 118
We don't have a chapel, but we do have non-fixed chairs in our Sanctuary. We can reduce the number so that, even though the room is the same size, we can create a sense of greater intimacy and appearance of fullness through fewer chairs. In the summer, when there has not been a need for a lot of changing, we have played around with semi-circular configurations (think about the sacred space stuff on Synagogue 2000) with clergy off the (elevated) bimah.
We have used various combinations of tables and music stands for them. With the impending remodeling and addition, we will have a similar situation, but the bimah will be larger and accessible.
We can open up the social hall to accommodate up to 900 for High Holy Days and will also be able to do that after the remodeling (or perhaps a few more).