Some movers and shakers wear fancy pinstriped suits and treat politicians to power lunches.
Not the Chassidic rabbi.
His uniform a black suit, white shirt and broad-brimmed black hat never changes.
And the only food he offers is challah, a bread delivered in person and free to the offices of most elected officials in Philadelphia's City Hall, usually every week.
Philly Councilman, Frank Rizzo, left, and Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers chat with Rabbi Solomon Isaacson during Solomon's weekly challah delivery in City Hall in Philadelphia
But although you won't find Rabbi Solomon Isaacson listed in any lobbyist directory or in any guide to official Philadelphia, there's no mistaking that the 63-year-old rabbi is widely perceived as a man of political influence.
And like any insider, Isaacson wants something for the client he sees as his, the Jewish people.
His latest pursuit: a large swath of land in Northeast Philadelphia for new townhouses and single-family homes so that hundreds of Chassidic Jewish families can relocate here from the saturated streets of Brooklyn.
As new Philadelphians, Isaacson says, they would help repopulate the city, adding to its tax base and creating jobs.
He's had no success so far but he's hardly out of juice. A fast-talking, fast-walking schmoozer, Isaacson has access. Here as well as in Harrisburg, lobbyists, lawmakers and their aides refer to him as "Rendell's rabbi" and "Street's rabbi."
With the proven ability to deliver votes from the immigrant community of Russian Jews that he has nurtured for 25 years, he is able to get government doors to open to him.
"This is a city that is constantly looking to upgrade itself, population-wise, business-wise, intellectual-wise," said the rabbi, who leads Congregation Beth Solomon. "We have an opportunity to change the face of Philadelphia."
It's a Thursday afternoon, and Isaacson is doing his thing. He's been to the mayor's office, fed the police officers who keep watch nearby. Now he's on City Hall's fifth floor, again reaching into one of his eight giant brown paper bags.
Out come two challahs and in goes the rabbi, this time into Room 582, Councilman Frank Rizzo's office. Rizzo is there "Hi, Rabbi, how are you?" and also, so it happens, is Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers.
"Oh! Commissioner!" Isaacson exclaims. His hands reach for three more challahs.
Soon he's off to finish his City Hall rounds, which he's been making for nearly 25 years. Altogether, with stops also at the District Attorney's Office and many businesses, he delivers 600 challahs a week.
"Why do I do it?" asks Isaacson, who was born into a family of rabbis that stretches back 10 generations. "To correct the misconception about what a Jew is, and what an Orthodox Jew is."
Through his personal outreach, he hopes to familiarize Philadelphians with what for some is a rather foreign community known for its distinctive dress and customs.Philadelphia
There are no official counts, but in Philadelphia and its suburbs, Chassidic Jews members of sects of Orthodox Jewry with roots in Eastern Europe in the mid-18th century number at least 10,000.
Their religious observance requires kosher stores and ritual baths, and bans driving and shopping on Saturdays, the Jewish sabbath. Men wear traditional black suits and tall black hats. Women tend to wear long skirts and don't shake hands with men, a practice stemming from beliefs about modesty.
But Isaacson's message is this: People are people. Their children laugh the same. Chassidic Jews are lawyers and doctors, grocery owners, and shoe salesmen. And many himself included have a hearty sense of humor.
At his synagogue's annual banquet last year, Isaacson debuted a short film he created for the dozens of city and state politicians in attendance. A play on the title of Will Smith's 1997 movie, it was called "Jewish Men in Black."
"He's a tremendous salesman for his community. If he was a businessman, he would have made millions," said Marty Weinberg, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 1999.
The Romanian-born rabbi has lived in Philadelphia since he was 6, initially near the congregation that his father led from 1951 to 1962.
First by watching his father, and later through his own actions, Isaacson said he learned to help his community by building political ties.
"I'm a rabbi first, and everything else comes second," says Isaacson, who got his political start as a poll watcher during the senior Frank Rizzo's first mayoral run. But having political ties, he says, "helps open doors for many different things."
Said Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell: "I can't meet with the rabbi without coming away with three envelopes for requests to help somebody get a job or get on Medicaid."
In a section of the city flooded with Russian immigrants, Isaacson has established himself as somebody these new Philadelphians turn to for government aid, and also political guidance.
"I don't come in and say I can deliver five or 5,000 votes," the rabbi said, referring to his meetings with elected officials. "It's like any endeavor. ... You hope your opinion would be listened to."
The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society estimates that there are about 22,500 Russian-speaking immigrants in Philadelphia. With a synagogue that caters to thousands of them, Isaacson has well-recognized political clout.
"He's a funny guy for an Orthodox rabbi," Rendell said, calling the rabbi "a great sports fan, a great joke-teller." But he's also a man of substance, the governor said. "He's as influential as the leading pastors in African American churches who candidates seek out all the time."
On a frigid Sunday morning in December in Brooklyn's Borough Park neighborhood, all along 13th Avenue, a main shopping strip, are shop signs in Hebrew and clusters of both bearded men and baby carriages.
Standing outside one clothing shop, Debbie Goldstein, 34, a Chassidic Jew, grouses about the lack of housing in her neighborhood. "I think of my children" she has eight, ages 13 and under "and wonder where they are going to go."
It is common for Chassidic women to have eight or more children. But while a high birth rate has expanded the population here, it has also led to a housing shortage in Borough Park. At the same time, property values are rising.
Three and four-bedroom rowhouses typically sell for $700,000, and single-family houses fetch as much as $1 million, said Jeff Grandis, a broker with Fillmore Real Estate in Brooklyn.
Chassidic Jews have been priced out of Brooklyn before. They've responded by building new communities about an hour outside of New York. For instance, the towns of Lakewood, N.J., and Monsey, N.Y., now count Chassidim as the majority of their populations. Both are home to several dozen synagogues and yeshivas as well as cultural clashes involving zoning laws, traffic-safety rules and public schools.
Isaacson says that other locales are wooing, but he sees Philadelphia as the next new Chassidic town. He says he can easily lure 300 to 1,000 Hasidic families here, partly because of the city's proximity to New York, the existing Jewish community, and Philadelphia's cultural vitality. A developer is already lined up, he says, Michael Vegh of First Leader Development Corp. in Philadelphia.
The problem is, the rabbi has no land to build on.
The Somerton Civic Association last year voted down a proposal to rezone a 60-acre industrial parcel for 300 single and semi-detached homes, all priced at less than $300,000 each.
"I know he was disappointed," said Mary Jane Hazell, the association president. But all the resulting cars, she said, would have burdened the streets. "Everything was traffic patterns."
Isaacson hasn't approached her since with another proposal, but he is busy talking up city and state officials.
He was chagrined last June to learn that the mayor who calls Isaacson "a good friend and a supporter" had approved a deal for 1,700 residential units on 71 acres of riverfront property that the rabbi was eyeing.
Street declined an interview, except to say, "We will be supportive in any reasonable way" of the rabbi's proposal.
That support included a meeting with Isaacson and Street's housing secretary, Kevin Hanna. "If the right deal could be struck on the right parcel of land, this would be a great addition for the city," Hanna said in an interview. But hurdles include finding a large-enough tract. "Those kind of real estate opportunities are relatively few and far between," he said.
About two months ago, Isaacson approached Councilwoman Joan Krajewski, whose district includes the riverfront land he is interested in. "I have no way of controlling the developers on the river," she said she told him.
Democratic State Sen. Michael Stack of Philadelphia also met with him. "He's literally saying we can build new neighborhoods, and that he'd like me to be an advocate," Stack said. "All I ever say is, 'that sounds great, I'll help out.'"
But still, nothing leaving Isaacson "puzzled."
Considering the city's strained economy, and its struggle to keep residents from leaving, "people should be knocking on my door saying, 'How can we entice these people to come here' and they are not," the rabbi said.
But he's not giving up. Not this rabbi, who waited five years for his new synagogue to be built, a $1.2 million project for which he persuaded local unions to donate labor, including carpentry and electrical work.
For him, there's more politicking to come.
Turning his sights to the 2007 mayoral race, Isaacson said: "This could become an election issue." Referring to the six serious likely candidates who have emerged so far, he said: "If they want my support, I want to talk about this."
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