Visiting convicted spy Jonathan Pollard at the federal penitentiary in Butner, North Carolina, turned out to be a completely different experience from what I expected. First, there was the romance. As a writer on love and marriage, I have often been accused of viewing everything in terms of relationships. Here the connection was self-evident. As I stood in the visitor processing line, I watched the wives of the inmates, immaculately and beautifully dressed, waiting impatiently to get inside and see their husbands.

What the Jewish Sabbath is to Israelites, these visiting times are to the wives and inmates. It is holy time. Every preparatory ritual is sacred, from waiting silently to be admitted to anticipating the joy of their men's embrace. Like the Sabbath, the importance of these visits supersedes all weekday affairs, and not a moment is desecrated by the intrusion of something as mundane as a phone call. And like the Sabbath, welcomed so passionately by Jews and compared in ancient prayers to a bride, these beautiful brides are awaited by prisoners with beaming faces as they are escorted in by the guards.

Now, federal statutes are fairly puritanical. No touching allowed. And conjugal visits are out of the question. (California is more open-minded on the subject, and so is Israel. Who said Israelis weren't romantic?) But touch they do, innocently of course, with the guards' complicity as they pretend not to notice. As a marriage counselor, I know how seldom the average husband and wife can have an uninterrupted conversation. But these thirty-odd couples talked for hours on end, gazing deeply the entire time into each others' eyes, holding hands as if holding on for dear life. I have seldom witnessed such intensity.

And then there was Jonathan Pollard himself. Another hopeless romantic. When he gets on to the subject of his wife Esther, it's hard to get him off. "If it weren't for my wife, I would not have a reason to get up in the morning," he says. By now most people know that the couple married in prison when he was already well into his life-without-parole sentence. The actual story of how they got married in a federal penitentiary would make a great Hollywood film, but I was sworn to secrecy and mum I shall remain.

The starry-eyed, soft-spoken, tender intellectual who sat across from me and another rabbi for five hours was not the hardened spy I had expected. I was waiting for the bitter man, feeling abandoned by Israel and the Jewish community, that you often read of in the press. I never found him. Pollard surprised me by spending much of the time talking about the state of world Jewry in general and the fate of Israel in particular.

I first heard of Jonathan Pollard's life sentence when I was 18 years old. In the 17 years that have since elapsed, my life has changed radically--I lived in Australia, England, Israel, and the United States, got married, and had seven children. In all that time, he has remained a prisoner.

Whatever Jewish patriotism could have led him to break the law and spy for Israel's sake is utterly inexcusable. But he has paid a hefty price. He is the only person in the history of the United States to receive a life sentence for passing classified information to an ally. The maximum sentence for his offense today would be up to ten years, and a medium sentencing two to four years. Indeed, Michael Schwartz, a non-Jew who spied for Saudi Arabia-virtually the same crime as Jonathan Pollard's-was discharged from the Navy for his offense and received no prison term at all.

Still, this was not the reason I traveled there.

Nor did I visit Jonathan Pollard as a humanitarian gesture. To be sure, I believe that Pollard should be granted his freedom on humanitarian grounds. He has truly suffered enough. But there are other humanitarian causes which, while not necessarily as worthy, are geographically closer to my own backyard.

The night before I left for North Carolina, my children wanted to know why their father wasn't going to be with them for dinner and homework the following night. I tried to sum my reasons for going and why I continue to exert efforts to try to win Pollard's release. "The Jewish people are a family," I told them. "One of our brothers made a mistake and got himself into a lot of trouble. Although the mistake was to try to benefit Israel, it was still very wrong. He and his wife have never been able to live together, and he's beginning to be forgotten. Now, we have to do whatever we can to help a member of the family, correct?" My children are not lawyers, but this they understood perfectly. When they said the Shema at night, they each added a prayer for Jonathan Pollard's release. Later, they made him pictures and postcards and sent them to him by mail.

That kids can understand so simple an argument which adults in the Jewish community seem to be missing is deeply troubling. I spoke with a respected activist friend at the higher echelons of the American Jewish community. I told him I was getting involved in trying to help the Pollards.

His response: Too much time has been wasted by the Jewish community on him already. "The American Jewish community," he said, "has limited political capital. And we shouldn't waste in on the cause of a single individual."

But my friend was mistaken. Jonathan Pollard is not the cause. Jewish unity is. I never told my children that a man was withering in jail. I told them a member of the family was. That their father should expend some of their family's capital on working for his release made perfect sense to my kids because they understood him to be a relative.

So in the end, it is I who am in Jonathan Pollard's debt. By going to visit him, I learned something of the sacredness of love. And by committing myself to help him, I learned something about the indestructibility of family.

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