It was a last minute decision.
Mrs. Bernstein had been teaching for 30 years and had never attended a Torah Umesorah convention -- a conclave designed to help inspire and instruct teachers in religious schools across the U.S. But "for some reason," this year her principal thought she should go.
And so there she was that late May Shabbat afternoon, in an audience with 700 other women, listening to Rabbi Paysach Krohn who had the audience riveted with his customary brew of drama, scholarship and wit.
"Everyone knows that there are thousands of wonderful, capable single men and women who are eager to get married," he thundered. "The problem is very complex and so are the solutions. But one of the possible avenues to explore in helping to alleviate this very painful impasse is for men to consider marrying women who are older than them.
"There's really no reason in the world why men are so locked in to this idea that their wives must be younger."
"There's really no reason in the world why men are so locked in to this idea that their wives must be younger. Widening your field of opportunities can make a big difference."
Most of the heads in the audience, Mrs. Bernstein‘s included, were nodding in agreement. It did make sense. The notion that men needed to be older than their spouses seemed to be one of those premises that just took on a life of their own, for no particular reason.
"As a matter of fact," continued the rabbi, "one of the outstanding Torah personalities of the 19th century, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, not only married a woman who was three years older than he was, but also proclaimed the virtues and advantages of his unconventional choice.
"'I have many goals and aspirations in life,' he said at the time.'I need a woman with a mature and responsible attitude that will help me fulfill those objectives. An older woman can do that.'"
Rabbi Hirsch was Chief Rabbi of Moravia in the mid 1800's and an influential member of Austria-Hungarian Parliament before moving to Frankfurt. There he was Rabbi of a community of just 11 families which eventually grew to many thousands. His philosophical publications "The Nineteen Letters" and "Horeb," as well as his monumental commentaries on all of Torah, Prophets, and Writings, have become staples in nearly every Torah home. This was a man whose every step of life was a lesson to generations that followed.
Those words were still reverberating in Mrs. Bernstein's mind the next day, when Mrs. Gruman called. She knew of Mrs. Bernstein's son, Zev, and wanted to suggest a shidduch (match) for him.
After extolling the virtues of this potential mate, Mrs. Gruman swallowed once or twice and confided, "I might as well tell you up front. The young woman is older than your son."
Zev was 24 and had only been dating less than a year. All of the women he had dated had been younger than him, so why would he consider someone nearly two years older?
And yet the timing of this suggestion was too incredible to be ignored. It was just 24 hours ago that "for some reason" she had heard a plea for men to consider women who are older and a story about a great Jewish leader who had done just that. Mrs. Bernstein tentatively continued to inquire about the young lady's personality and background.
"Tell me more about Esther," she said. "Tell me about her family."
"Well, her mother's maiden name is Hirsch. As a matter of fact she happens to be a great granddaughter of the famous Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch."
Mrs. Bernstein could hardly catch her breath. She probably looked around for the hidden camera, thinking someone was playing a prank on her. The "coincidences" were too unlikely to be mere chance.
After describing Esther to Zev and noting the rather remarkable signs that accompanied the whole process, Zev agreed to meet Esther.
I'll spare you the suspense. A few weeks later they were engaged.
Imagine the surprise when soon after Rabbi Krohn received a call from a woman he had never met or spoken with before -- Mrs. Bernstein.
"You don't know me," she told him, "but I owe you a great debt of thanks."
She went on to detail to him in rapid fire how she had never before attended this convention, heard his unusual appeal, received the call from Mrs. Gruman the next day, was told the Hirsch family connection and now they were engaged.
"You're really the matchmaker here," she said.
This story does not end here. And I still owe you an explanation as to how I came to dance at a cemetery.
For the past few years, Rabbi Krohn, a close friend of mine, has somehow found time to lead a 9-day summer tour of important Jewish locales in Europe. Every year he begs me to join him to supplement his talks with brief lectures, musical accompaniment and camaraderie. "For some reason," this year I finally agreed. In August, a group of 70 Americans ventured to Germany, Prague, Austria, and Hungary.
The trip was remarkable. The itinerary was spiritual, uplifting, pensive, mournful, picturesque and jam-packed.
On Day Two of the trip, we boarded our double-decker tour bus in Frankfurt. Next stop -- the cemetery and gravesite of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. Thirty minutes later we crowded around the hallowed and noble monument of this legendary figure and heard Rabbi Krohn's description of the accomplishments of this fearless, spirited, and brilliant sage.
But what moved the crowd most was when he told the story of Zev and Esther, how they met, and the role that Rabbi Hirsch somehow played in their holy union.
"I have no doubt that somehow... somewhere... this saintly man orchestrated these highly improbable events," Rabbi Krohn said. "Don't ask me how, but this trip was organized many months ago -- before Zev and Esther even met. How could he have also known that we would be here -- at his very burial place -- just hours after their wedding? Zev and Esther got married in New York last night!"
I felt a distinct chill travel up my spine. No one was unmoved. It was an inexplicable moment we would never forget. No one doubted that we were standing in a very holy place.
After visiting a few other graves, we quietly exited the imposing cemetery and made our way toward the waiting bus. But Rabbi Krohn had one final message for us.
"A cemetery is, of course, a very sad place," he said. "But how can we leave here, having experienced this extraordinary event, without dancing for the Chasson and Kallah (groom and bride)?"
As if appearing at the wedding itself, we joined hands and danced and sang like never before.
Seconds later, guitar slung over my shoulder, on the sidewalk in front of this historic memorial ground, I strummed an A minor and led the group into a spirited celebration of wedding elation. None of us even knew the guests of honor, but it didn't matter. As if appearing at the wedding itself, we joined hands and danced and sang like never before. It was an unforgettable scene of utter joy, unity, and providence.
Several hours later, Rabbi Krohn called the new couple in New York-- married all of one day -- and told them what had just transpired. They were equally moved. Zev said that they would love to incorporate our dance into their wedding video.
Somewhere, up in the heavens, "for some reason" I have a feeling that Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch was smiling.
And so was his wife.