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As a first time visitor to Manhattan, I was very surprised to see that most shuls (with a few notable exceptions) are facing roughly south-south-west. This is nowhere near the direction to face Jerusalem, whether you hold by a "flat-earth" Rhumb line (east) or a Great Circle line (north-east) - see here for explanation.

I'm intrigued to know what the historical reasons are for this, when by shifting the Aron Hakodesh 90 degrees to the left they could have come very close to the Rhumb line direction, at ESE? And if it's because the buildings on the grid are typically elongated along the SSW-NNE axis, and it's better feng shui/practical layout to have the Aron on a narrow wall, then why choose to face SSW over NNE, when NNE is very close to the Great Circle direction, and is at least somewhat closer to the Rhumb line?

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    I'd guess they chose SSW over NNE because no one thought to daven along a Great Circle line until they realized that planes were doing it on the way to Israel. Also note that nearly everyone in Manhattan doesn't know that the grid is aligned 29 degrees off of true north. – Double AA Aug 23 '12 at 4:26
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    @DoubleAA, but even so, isn't "something with E in it" still better than "something with W in it", if that's the choice you're making? Or did they say that we can't get E right anyway, so at least go for S because of the latitude difference? – Monica Cellio Aug 23 '12 at 14:31
  • @MonicaCellio "Also note that nearly everyone in Manhattan doesn't know that the grid is aligned 29 degrees off of true north." They probably thought none of the choices had an E in it. – Double AA Sep 24 '12 at 1:39
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Manhattan Island points SSW to NNE so all the properties on the grid will also face in that direction. The buildings also have a narrow streetfront and go back longer. Putting the aron on the East will result in a very wide but short synagogue with the entrance on only side. To get to the women's section one would have to pass through the men's section unless some fancy corridor is introduced. Also, the rabbi will be facing a smaller proportion of the congregation so fewer people will hear him well.

The shotgun shaped schul with the entrance at the front does not have these problems and needs less special building to work well.

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