Question: Mr. Aryeh Koenigsburg: In many synagogues, including Menorat Hamaor, praying towards the ark does not necessarily mean facing Jerusalem. Should one face Jerusalem, even if means turning away from the ark?
Rabbi Daniel Myers: The Shulchan Aruch (94:1) writes that one who is in Israel should face Jerusalem when saying Shmoneh Esrai. The Ramah adds that his community faces east during prayer since they are west of Eretz Yisrael. (See Aruch HaShulchan 94:4 where he questions this Ramah.) The Mishna Berura (94:9) states the following: “Since they face east, their custom is to place the ark by the eastern wall of the Synagogue. If that is impossible, then they should place the ark by the southern wall, but they should certainly not place it by the western wall, because then their backs would be facing the ark. Even if the ark is not by the eastern wall, the Synagogue members should still face towards the east. If one finds himself in a Synagogue where the ark is by the southern wall and the Synagogue members face that way, one should pray in the same manner as the Synagogue members, even though they are acting improperly. Still, he should at least turn his head towards the East.” The Baair Haitaiv (94:3) actually quotes the Yad Eliyahu who maintains that in the latter case one should face east, even though he is acting differently than the Synagogue members; there is no issue of Yuhara (arrogance) or Aiva (ill will). The Baair Haitiv concludes with the same ruling as the Mishna Berura, namely that one should not deviate from the practice of the group, even though it is improper.
The Aruch HaShulchan (94:1 -14) discusses the nature of this law and questions why many are not strict to pray precisely towards Jerusalem. He raises the possibility (94:8) that the law of facing Jerusalem is not necessarily “Neged Mamash,” (precisely facing Jerusalem) rather, “Netiya L’sham,” (facing the general direction.) (See prayer Halchata 12:4 regarding the direction one should face when praying at the Kotel. See Chatam Sofair Orach Chaim 1:19 where he discusses the laws of moving an ark from one wall to another in order to expand the Synagogue.)