09/17/2010 09:41 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Keeping Our Brothers, Keeping Ourselves: The Importance of Personal and Communal Repentance

It's afternoon on Tuesday, September 7. The Jewish new year, Rosh Hashana, is hours away. I have sermons to write, classes to prepare, family and friends to call, and my own spiritual preparations to do. I am not doing any of those things, however. Instead I am riding the subway for over an hour, deep into Bushwick, Brooklyn. I get off the train in a neighborhood I've never been to and find the address I've been given. A heavyset Hispanic man greets me, and we enter his home together.

Catholic icons lovingly adorn the house, while little children run at my feet. I sit down at the couch and introduce myself to Eduardo, Juan and Fernando (names changed). I to listen to the story that brings us all here, three Catholics and an Orthodox Jew, on the eve of Rosh Hashana.

Until May, these men, recent immigrants from South America, worked for a kosher food company called Flaum's. Then, one day, they and dozens of their colleagues were fired. Why were they fired? Because they raised concerns about their working conditions to their employer. What were their concerns? Things like starting wages as low as $4.00 an hour, 60- to 80-hour work weeks with no overtime pay, and verbal abuse from a manager who called them "cucarachas," among other names.

While hearing their stories, I thought about the great Jewish sage Maimonides, who writes about the process of teshuva. Teshuva can be translated as "return" or "repentance," but it generally means the process in which we take what we've done wrong and try to make it right. We Jews are supposed to engage in teshuva this time of year. Normally, we consider teshuva to be intensely personal, but Maimonides writes that at this time of the year, repentance is both for the individual and for the community.

Communal repentance. I believe in my community. I believe in the power of the Jewish people to be a force for good in this world. But I've also seen the work we have to do. Hearing about how the abuse of the workers fell on the deaf ears of the owners of Flaum's and of the leaders in my community, how I myself had delayed in paying a visit to these workers for months after they reached out in the spring, how in so many decisions we put convenience over ethics, the "right price" over what's right, the hard truths about communal teshuva were staring at me in the face.

To do my own personal teshuva, I am hoping to help put public pressure on the owner of Flaum's to pay the court-ordered back-wages and overtime that he owes his former workers. Moshe Grunhut, the courts have demanded that you do so, and you have refused. Our Torah demands that we not oppress a hired worker (Leviticus 19:13), and our Talmud boldly states that withholding someone's wages is equivalent to murder (Bava Metzia 112a). What you have done is a chillul Hashem, a desecration of God's name. It is time you comply with the court and pay the back the wages you owe to your workers.

But what about communal teshuva? At one point towards the end of my conversation with Eduardo, Juan, and Fernando, I asked if there was anything else I should know, or if they had any questions for me. One of the workers turned to me and asked me to explain why I, a Jew wearing a kippah just like the owners of the factory, was here listening to their story. I asked them to bring out a Bible. The youngest daughter picked one off the shelf, and I opened it to Leviticus 19:13: "Thou shalt not oppress a hired worker." I said, "I'm here because I believe that God cares about how workers are treated. And I'm here because I am ashamed that my community has sustained a business that treats its workers in such an immoral, unholy way. And I want to tell you that I'm sorry."

To walk the path of faith in today's world can be a difficult and confusing journey. We are connected with millions, or even billions of others who are members of our respective faith communities. We may share similar values with many of our fellow travelers, but others from our communities sometimes do what seem to be the most odd, misguided, or even evil things in the name of that which we hold so dear -- Jesus, the Koran, the Torah, Nirvana, God.

Of course, we could withdraw, giving in to the sweet luxury of focusing on our own blameless selves. I find it much easier to scoff, mock, or ignore those with whom I disagree, and only worry about my own spiritual growth. I may improve myself, but in doing so, I would fail to actualize into the broader world the values I supposedly hold dear. And I would fail to do the communal religious work that is demanded by all faith traditions. We must find ways to do both personal and communal teshuva. As it says in the ancient collection of Jewish wisdom Pirkei Avot, "You aren't responsible for completing the job, but you aren't free to stop working on it either" (2:21).

We may not fix all the wrongs done by our fellow Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, or Hindus, but we have the power, and the responsibility, to be constantly improving ourselves and our communities. I bless us that in this time of religious turmoil and upheaval, we each find the strength to walk our personal spiritual paths with integrity and authenticity, striving personally and communally for a more just and loving world.