The crowd wanted an encore — and some Manischewitz.
The Shul Band, a folk rock octet, had just finished playing to a full house on Wednesday night. But this was not just any gig. The band was performing as part of a religious service for the Shul of New York celebrating Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. It was part rock concert, part traditional ceremony and part ’70s be-in.
“Think of it as Jerry Garcia in Jerusalem,” said Adam Feder, the guitar-playing leader, as he tried to describe his combination rock and klezmer band, which includes Jewish and non-Jewish players and has also played at weddings and bar mitzvahs.
Since 2000, the Shul Band has been drawing a diverse, multigenerational following to the Shul of New York, a Manhattan-based congregation founded by Rabbi Burt Siegel that calls itself “a synagogue for spiritual Judaism.” The Rosh Hashana service was held on the Lower East Side at the Angel Orensanz Foundation for the Arts, the oldest standing synagogue in New York.
“In ancient times the Torah would be chanted in the marketplace, so instead of just reading the Torah it was sung,” said Mr. Feder, who considers the Shul Band an outgrowth of that tradition. “I see the music as liturgy,” he said, adding, “Our liturgy happens to have a full band.”
His concept for the band was inspired by the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, a folk songwriter who led sing-alongs at his Orthodox synagogue on the Upper West Side. Mr. Feder, 40, was also influenced by the annual winter solstice concerts at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, which he regularly attended as a child. The combination of “the Eastern European folk choir and the Mexican dancers and the Irish reels just made me ecstatic,” he said. “If that wasn’t holy, I do not know what is.”
Seeking to create an equally eclectic mix was a priority for him. “I started approaching musicians in the subway,” he said, recalling how he discovered an Argentine tabla drummer while waiting for the No. 6 train at Union Square. A Ukrainian accordion player and a Polish saxophonist were also among the rotating band members he found underground.
He met Seth Ginsberg, the band’s electric mandolin player, in 2001, during an all-night jam session at a barn in Shandaken, N.Y. Then in 2003 Mr. Feder met Ernesto Villa-Lobos, a virtuoso violinist, after hearing him perform at CBGB’s Gallery.
Mr. Villa-Lobos has been an integral part of the band ever since — a fiddler in the shul. And not a Jewish one at that. Mr. Villa-Lobos, who was schooled at home in Veracruz, Mexico, had never met a Jew before he arrived in New York on a Fulbright fellowship in 2000. Feeling embraced by the congregation, he invited his brothers, Alberto and Luis, who are also violinists, to come to New York and join him playing at the synagogue.
Alberto Villa-Lobos said, “We really feel like we are part of the shul community.”
Only half jokingly, Mr. Feder said, “The band is one-third mariachi now.”
Last year, the Villa-Lobos brothers performed at the Latin Grammy Awards after a producer attended one of their concerts for the Shul.
“We’re not a very traditional shul,” said Lilly Lavner, 22, who has sung with the band since she was in high school. Born in South Korea and adopted by a family in Brooklyn, she uses “short Asian Jew” as her nickname on the Internet. She is both appreciative and representative of the congregation’s inclusive spirit, and said that Rabbi Siegel starts every service by welcoming people of all faiths, ages, races and sexual orientation.
“You look at the band, and it’s a mixture of ethnicities,” said Stephen Palgon, 34, a television documentary maker. “It’s a symbol of what the shul is about.” A devoted “Shulhead,” Mr. Palgon said he had the songs of the Shul Band on his iPod.
Aviva Mohilner, 30, said on Wednesday, “The music is amazing.” She added that she was “uplifted by its sheer beauty.”
But Mr. Feder insisted the power of the music comes from the congregation as much as from the band. “People don’t just come to listen to something beautiful,” he said. “They come to be part of it.”
John Balan, 72 , a Holocaust survivor, said: “It’s like a revival meeting for me, and I find it hard to stay in my seat. The word band is too small a word for what Adam does.”
Mr. Feder’s charismatic hold on the congregation was palpable as he bobbed and swayed to the beat of a percussive tambourine and plucked strings, accompanied by stomping feet and clapping hands. “We’re shamelessly in love with what we’re doing,” he said.