The great pew survey: how comfy is your seat for the High Holy Days?

By Marcus Dysch, September 26, 2008

Recognising the potential toches-strain of spending hours sitting davening, the JC this week launches a quest to find Britain's most comfortable synagogue seats.

Backing the project is ergonomist Beatrice Fraenkel, who warns that excessive periods in an uncomfortable seat can risk causing deep-vein thrombosis and sciatica.

The threat of a "plastic bucket chair" in an overflow minyan is, she said, "awful, the worst-case scenario".
It is not only congregants who face problems when sitting: Rabbi David Lister suffered following his move from Muswell Hill Synagogue to Edgware.

"When I first arrived, I had issues in the beit hamedrash because, if I leaned back, the seat would tip up," he said. "Thankfully the shul set up a derriere sub-committee to help solve the problem."

Rabbi Lister added: "If people stay awake during my sermons, maybe the seats are too uncomfortable? But a seat is only as comfortable as the atmosphere in a shul. If the community is happy, it will sit on nails."

When South Manchester Synagogue was rebuilt in Bowdon in 2002, its designers included state-of-the-art features such as an exposed steel roof structure and retractable walls. But administrator Toni Hyams says hard work also went into sourcing seats.

"We have square pews with cushions on the base and back. There are arms between each seat and it is quite spacious. We used specialist pew-makers and they are very comfortable seats."

Laurence Goldman, senior warden at Liverpool's 134-year-old Grade I listed Princes Road Synagogue, believes modern is not always comfortable.

"Our seats are reasonably comfortable but much better than some newer shuls. We have traditional pews covered in leather or plastic-type material.Admittedly it's not like sitting in an armchair, but it's fine even for a long day like Yom Kippur. I've never had a complaint."

There can be little argument over which is the country's most exclusive seat, however. At Bevis Marks Synagogue, the end-of-bench seat used by Sir Moses Montefiore is now roped off and used only when VIPs drop in.

"It's a bit like when West Ham retired Bobby Moore's Number Six shirt," explained Maurice Bitton of the City of London shul. "Members of the Montefiore family may sit there; Tony Blair has used it, as have Prince Charles and Prince Philip for the 300th and 250th anniversaries of the shul respectively. It's just a normal seat, but it has two arm rests instead of one, and a foot rest."

Congregants at shuls undergoing renovation would be delighted to have such an impressive option: at the Hampstead Synagogue in North-West London, daveners face taking part in services in a marquee with temporary seating while their 116-year-old building is being refurbished.

While at the United Synagogue's Shenley United Jewish Community, which is without a permanent building, congregants have been known to resort to sitting on the floor.

Beatrice Fraenkel sees weight distribution as a key factor when identifying seats most ergonomically designed for prayer activity.

"The standard idea of sitting is that you are well supported on your back.Knees and thighs need to be parallel with the floor. You need space to wriggle about and stretch your legs.

"There will be different age groups in shul, and people who are taller or shorter. Some people's feet would dangle, others would be trapped. You need an element of compromise."

Mrs Fraenkel's tips for healthy praying include taking an occasional stroll, extra support for the elderly, and booster seats for children.

So far... 70% find their seats excruciating

              30% say their seats are only adequate

               0% find their chair heavenly


Last updated: 11:43am, October 3 2008


Susan Lester

Sun, 09/28/2008 - 15:49

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With the greatest respect, I beg to present a different position on Marcus Dysch’s article on seats for the High Holy Days.

I have upper back problems and all the received wisdom about seats is wrong for me. Maybe today’s chairs are designed for people with lower back problems?

I find that shule pews are crippling, and that plastic chairs are perfect. I sit at a table in comfort behind the shule pews, and when standing rest my books on a combined plastic box and stool at a comfortable height for reading with bifocals.

After all, if life gives one lemons, one can make splendid lemonade!

May we all be written and sealed for a very good year
Susan Lester