Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Synagogue Bathrooms

[In genteel Canada we actually say washrooms, but since the civilized world doesn’t really know that word, I went with bathrooms here. When you get down to it, the two terms employ the same euphemism, anyway.]

I know what you're thinking: Bathrooms, TRH? Really? Shouldn't you get an anonymous blog to write stuff like this? Isn't this Jack's domain? Just read, and you'll understand. I hope.

My family took a trip to California when I was 14; we went to LA and San Francisco, and we drove the coast in between. I vaguely remember visiting relatives, and I’m sure we saw some sights as well, and I think the view on that coastal drive was probably impressive, but my main three memories from that trip are:

(1) The awful smell in the kosher restaurant that was located right above a Buddhist temple (Was it called ‘The Lotus Garden,’ or am I making that up? This was the latter part of the '80s.),

(2) The scary roller coaster hills of San Francisco, and

(3) The bathrooms at The Madonna Inn.

This last item might well have been the highlight of the trip – we went there just to see those bathrooms, then drove on - and I know it is the highlight of others’ trips, too. Don’t believe me? Google “Madonna Inn” and bathrooms and look at all of the video and still photographs, not to mention the essays on the scatalogical facilities at this hostelry.

Why do I mention this?

1. Because one of the lessons I learned in the synagogue rabbinate was that your facility should be attractive, out of respect for its religious function. Not in the sense of, “Let’s waste money on making sure we have the fanciest moldings and a three-story Aron Kodesh,” but in the sense of, “We want this building to be at least as beautiful as our homes.” [There is much discussion on this point, in terms of the halachos of shul-building.] If our homes have attractive, clean bathrooms, then so should our shuls.

2. And because people who come to shul should find a building designed with daveners as well as davening in mind. People need certain things – good signage, appropriate seating, helpful lighting, well-managed air conditioning, perhaps page number indicators, and, yes, good bathrooms. Providing these elements says that we are thinking about the needs of people who come to daven.

3. And because bathrooms, as in the case of the Madonna Inn, are an easy opportunity to impress people, since they are not even looking to be impressed. Impressing people with your décor is challenging, because everyone has seen magnificent shuls. Impressing people with your programming is challenging, because everyone has programming. Bathrooms, on the other hand, are low-hanging fruit.

So what do you need, to impress with your washrooms? Not much. I would include:
• Good signage, so guests don’t need to be embarrassed when they are forced to ask for directions
• Clean facilities
• Accessible facilities – good lighting, handicapped accessible, changing areas for babies, child-friendly urinals, and so on
• Facilities affording privacy, in terms of both external access and internal function, while maintaining safety as well
• A good space for netilas yadayim outside the bathroom
• And, yes, perhaps something aesthetically unique.

Start here for ideas.


  1. Would also add that someone should realize that men and women have different needs and most of the bathrooms (or WCs if you'd prefer) are almost identical for the men and the women. Women need more counter space, mirrors put at a height that takes into consideration that they are generally shorter than men, better lighting in the mirror area,and adequate hooks on the inside of doors because no way is a woman going to put her purse or any belongings she is carrying with her down on a bathroom floor. Oh yes, I wouldn't mind if those bathrooms had air refresheners in them or at least a can of lysol spray.

  2. right on to bth of you! Part of our redesign process for the new shul here was pointing out to the architects that the women's bathroom should be about twice the size of the men's - you know about the lines.

    Also, we installed hooks in the antechambers for hanging up tallisim, so they could be removed before entering the bathroom, and have men's, women's AND a "family" bathroom that includes a regular toilet, a child-height potty, a changing table, and a "kid-seat" that folds out from the wall and has safety straps so kids have somewhere clean and safe to sit while mom or dad uses the facilities.

  3. ProfK, Tzipporah-
    Excellent points; perhaps we should publish a guide...

  4. if you do that guide, remind people that function is more important than form! A certain shul has a certain issue with wet floors in the men's room which I am told is a design issue, meaning the receptacle should have projected farther from the wall...

  5. I have been to the Madonna Inn- been a few years, but I remember. Cool place.

    On point, if you have a dysfunctional digestive system you end up becoming better acquainted than you might like with the "washroom."

  6. Anonymous-
    I have to assume you're talking about a shul I know, but I'm kinda glad not to know what you're talking about... And, yes, function definitely matters.

    Ah, there you are. Glad you didn't disappoint.

  7. Rabbi,

    A wonderful example of: "your fellow Jew's physical needs are your spiritual needs." (Anyone know who said that originally? I want to say R' Levi Yitzchak Berdichever?)

  8. Shalom-
    Thanks for commenting; offhand, I think you're thinking of Rav Kook in his Haggadah, on Yachatz.

  9. It is almost a explicit Gemara in the beginning of Berachos - Al zot yitpalel kol chasid le'eit metzoh - which according to one opinion is Beit Hakisei.
    Many years ago when looking to choose a Yeshiva - I did indeed factor in the bathroom situation.

  10. Shimon-
    Very true. Alo, much of the gemara's health advice centers around bowel health; חולי מעיים was and remains a dreaded disease. Good point.