Thanks, Madonna, for coming to Israel and sparking awareness.Hollywood high-profiles Steven Spielberg, Michael Douglas and Barbra Streisand have been criticized for not going. Ever-Superman Christopher Reeve has done it, as has pop diva Whitney Houston. Madonna was there, but in the midst of a maelstrom of controversy.

Visiting Israel, that is, despite the intifada.

Despite a critic’ attack on Madonna for joining a high holiday service in Jerusalem – what with her not being Jewish and promoting the esoteric Jewish mysticism of Kaballah – the Material Girl’s visit touches hearts like my own about what it’s like to honor a war-torn area with good intentions, especially during a high holiday.

After all, most people are afraid to go where danger looms – whether in a country or in a marriage. I’ve seen it happen in thousands of relationships, where fear turns back couples from risking intimacy.

Yet, I always advise, open your heart and trust.

Hollywood producer Lawrence Bender – known for his gruesome Quentin Tarantino films like Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction and more lately Kill Bill finally did it, and found his visit life-changing. He reportedly said of his seven-day trip to Israel featuring meetings with Israeli and Arab leaders, “I can tell you this has changed my life.”

“Are you crazy going into the eye of a storm?” people asked me when I said I was going to Jerusalem. Maybe going into the eye of Hurricane Ivan is crazy, but not to a war-torn zone where people are suffering.

Troubles times are the time to raise compassion – for countries and strangers – that can only enhance your own ability to expand love in your personal relationships.

Most visitors to Israel go on what’s called a solidarity mission. “A solidarity mission is a trip arranged by a specific organization that provides expert guides and scholars to suit the needs of the traveling group, that includes days of touring and shopping but mainly meeting key leaders, journalists and policy makers, as well as victims of terror to show unity and support,” explains Steve Klein of the United Jewish Federation of New York.

“Solidarity means we see each other as members of the same family,” says Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive director of the New York Board of Rabbis. The co-host of WABC Talkradio’s ‘Religion on the Line’ weekly radio show notes that solidarity also affirms life despite hatemongers – that will be celebrated this May in the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps by bringing 18,000 people (18 being the Jewish number symbolic for life) to Israel in a ‘March of the Living.’

Putting a face to suffering – and surviving – brings the message home far more powerfully than watching it on TV as I experienced myself on several solidarity trips.

A woman lies bandaged in a hospital bed next to her husband whose skull was blown away from a bombing in the Park Hotel Pesach dinner. She tells the group of us gathered around her bed, “Thank you for coming. It makes me feel not so alone.”

A sweet 20-something young woman whose face was scarred from being bombed while waiting for a bus, says to me, “I just want some nice guy to want to date me.”

A pregnant young woman sits on the edge of the hospital bed of her young husband whose legs are so badly burned that he will never walk again, smiles broadly and says, “We’ll be fine. We have hope.”

These people’s stories, filled with strength and spirit are burned in my mind and heart forever since my several missions to Israel, with the UJA, Stand With Us ( and an independent group of 120 doctors from various hospitals in Los Angeles, organized by pediatrician Dr. Pejman Salimpour and congregation members from Los Angeles-Sinai Temple led by noted Rabbi David Wolpe.

We visited hospitals and rehab centers throughout Israel, offering moral support, and money raised from the congregation and the Magbit Foundation founded by businessman and philanthropist Parviz Nazarian.

I hadn’t been to Israel in decades since my honeymoon to Greece and Israel, nor planned a return until an invitation ‘called’ to me, awakening my childhood dream for world peace, already tested by years of advice-giving on the radio and crisis counseling at disasters from Hurricane Hugo in South Carolina to an earthquake in Australia, to 9/11.

What does ‘solidarity’ mean? Jerusalem’s ex-Mayor Ehud Olmert described it best in his speech one evening in Jerusalem, quoting the Talmud that all Jews are responsible for each other. “When a member of the family is sick, you would rush to the bedside,” he said. “Now Israel is hurting, and her brothers and sisters must come to her aide and comfort.”

But where are the millions of the rest of the ‘family’? The streets of Jerusalem and elsewhere felt at times like a ghost town, the Wailing Wall less crowded than I had pictured.

I refuse to be paralyzed by fear – as I advise my patients to “feel the fear and do it anyway.” In protest of my own and others’ fear, I walked beautiful beach promenades, lounged in restaurants, and shopped at outdoor crafts fairs (spending as much as possible to help the ailing economy, bringing home a suitcase full of Ahava beauty products sold at half price.

Buoyed by bathers and volleyball players finally appearing on beaches in Tel Aviv over the weekends, I felt proud to similarly defy fear, partying into the night at a local beachside restaurant with friends and NBC news staffers. Close by, throngs of teens crowded into an open-air disco, despite memories of the horrific Dolphinarium disco bombings years earlier. As lights swirled around the dancers, I both worried for their safety but savored their fun. It rang of the ‘get back to normal’ advice Americans got from our President and then-Mayor Giuliani after 9/11.

Psychologically I knew there can never be a ‘normal- again – in Israel or America. But getting on with joy and life is crucial for survival. This message was expressed powerfully in a video we saw, made by students at the Shevach Moffet high school in Tel Aviv who lost seven of their friends in the Dolphinarium disco bombing. The video’s theme is inspiring: ‘We will never stop dancing.’

The whirlwind itinerary of a mere few days started with prayers at the wall, followed by non-stop visits to health facilities to talk with doctors and patients.

In a gripping story of compassion, leading surgeon Avi Rifkin at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem told of treating suicide bombers and their victims side to side. Waving patient’s X-rays, he pointed out tiny nails in the explosives, soaked in rat poison, that causes the person to bleed to death. A single shot that coagulates the blood to save a life costs $10,000.

At the Beit Halochem Rehabilitation Center, proud paraplegic veterans spun their wheelchairs as their female partners twirled on their heels in tight-fitting dresses to Latin tunes, and the crowd cheered.

Cheers also echoed from the basketball court, where blind vets demonstrated skill in soccer by ‘listening’ for the location of the ball.

I wandered to the Olympic-size pool and gaily chatted with a woman about her child. As she swam away, I noticed she had no legs.

At the memorial service for the students who died at the Dolphinarium disco bombings, parents, friends, and dignitaries as then-Defense Minister Shimon Peres, spoke in front of photos posted of the seven murdered teens.

A new library was made possible by donations after the disaster – but how sad that tragedy often have to precipitate growth. Attention after any trauma is healing, but when the spotlight is withdrawn, post-traumatic stress sets in. All the more reason that the words of so many I visited resonated so deeply: “Don’t forget us,” they said.

On a revisit to the mourning high school, I led a seminar about coping with trauma and growing up. Typical of teens, what the kids most enjoyed hearing about was gossip about rock and roll stars I’ve interviewed — but they were most appreciative that I cared enough to come back.

A consistent refrain echoed from everyone, “Thank you for coming.” To which I’d respond, “No, I’m the one who thanks YOU – for showing courage and love in the face of war.”

Gratitude is much more powerful than self-pity.

After scenes like this, how can anyone complain of life again?

On another day, the group drives to Haifa hospitals to offer medical supplies. The exquisite balcony seaside views present a stark contrast to screams of pain. A female soldier in the intensive care unit – her body bandaged and legs suspended high in a medical trapeze – was a victim of a bus bombing that claimed the lives of 17 youngsters, mostly soldiers.

In a room nearby, the neurosurgeons of Rambam Medical Center, known for its treatment of military wounded, explain how they reconstructed the skull of the man whose injured wife lies besides him. He stares blankly, but they insist his wife says he speaks to her. I marvel at the doctors? courage and skill, and the strength of their lovely young blue-eyed daughter who whispers to me that her sister died in the same bombing but we mustn’t let the father know. I hug her and ask her about her dreams for her future.

It’s easy to feel helpless, but I remind myself of Red Cross training that just being present to support and care is helpful. And I remember my years hearing tragic stories from callers on the radio. Caring and listening with love comforts.

I wonder what any of us in America can offer the Middle East health professionals who deal with tragedy on a daily basis, but they insist, “You do have much to offer us. We’re good at crisis counseling, but need long-term services, programs to ‘Help the Helpers’ suffering from burnout, and most of all, support.”

Not a word of anger, revenge or hate towards the Palestinians or Arabs.

I also care to help the Palestinians, and most fortuitously, my friend, then-MSNBC reporter Dr. Bob Arnot asks me to come to Ramallah for an interview. Despite others’ warnings of danger in Arafat’s headquarters, I agree to go. Besides, the sister of one of my student’s at Columbia, Daphnie Shefet, crosses the checkpoints safely often into Palestinian territory with Physicians for Human Rights to offer medical aid.

But an eavesdropping Arab is apparently offended by my presence, and the producer quietly grabs my arm in the middle of the interview and ushers me into an armored jeep for the ride back to the border. For the first time on this trip, I feel fear. To neutralize it, I stop an Arab man on the checkpoint line with his two small boys, and give them pens with an American flag design with the Statue of Liberty. I hug the kids and smile broadly, saying, “I’m an American woman. We can be friends.”

The memory lasts for hours on the plane ride home. I hit the ground running, teaching at Columbia Teacher’s College, seeing patients, writing, and immersing myself in the Israel Film Festival – coming soon again to New York – MC-ing the gala that honored Nobel Laureat Eli Weisel and broadcaster Michael Fuchs serenaded by Bette Midler. Among the especially moving films are ones about the relationship between Arabs and Israelis, including a documentary about women who live in the town of Ramle, and a feature about tragic Romeo and Juliet-like love affair.

I notice some changes after my trip. I monitor TV news for fairness, debate peace plans more than celebrity gossip, can’t eat duck l’orange without thinking of those who duck bullets in the Middle East.

Friends say I have ‘compassion fatigue,’ from months of crisis counseling after 9/11, and then throwing myself into war zones with these – and other – trips.

No matter. I feel re-aware of the world, refreshed on my peace mission, renewed with hope about survival in the face of daily danger, and recharged with new resolutions and purpose, not the least of which includes research about resiliency in the face of terrorism, writing a book about psychotherapy from the Israeli and Palestinian perspectives, and lecturing about peace – next stop next week in Tehran at the 2nd Asian Congress of Psychotherapy.

So thank you, strong souls for the plea, ‘Please don’t just visit and leave us. Come back. Remember the family.’

And thanks, Madonna, for sparking awareness of the family of man – for Israelis and Palestinians.

Rabbi Potasnik is among the religious leaders who do not disdain the rock star for her new religious interest. “I understand it’s superficial, but at the end of the day, Madonna brings a positive message to many removed from understanding or embracing the Jewish world,” he says.

So Madonna, don’t be discouraged by the controversy – mired in the region with or without you. You love to stir things up anyway. You’ve brought awareness to the meaning of forgiveness that is the spirit of the high holiday of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It’s that compassion and forgiveness that couples need in their relationship, and nations need for world peace.

(Originally appeared in the New York Daily News)