22/09/2016 07:51 BST | Updated 22/09/2017 06:12 BST

Intermarriage - Sikhs Are The New Jews

It was an astonishing event that reverberated far beyond the Sikh community. Last week, over fifty Sikhs interrupted a wedding that was taking place at a Sikh Temple in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire. The reason? Because a Sikh bride was marrying a Hindu groom, and the protesters objected to a mixed-faith wedding taking place.

For Jews, this was a reminder of similar angst that dominated communal thinking from the 1960s to 2000s, when intermarriage was seen as the foremost problem that British Jewry was confronting.

But was is so eerie is that for both Sikhs and Jews, the arguments heard against intermarriage are exactly the same, as they may well be for Catholics, Hindus, Muslims and other minority faith groups.

First, that it will be an unsuccessful relationship for the couple themselves, as they will be bound to fall out over religious differences at some point, and the marriage end in divorce.

Second, that it will confuse the children as to their identity, while it will also lead to them being the battleground between the warring parents. Third, that it will endanger the future of the community itself, with the traditions not being handed down and large numbers being lost to the faith.

These are genuine concerns, although they can also be accompanied by an overlay of prejudice against those who are different - the dislike of the unlike - as well as the irrational fear that the person of the other faith will alienate one's son/daughter and steal them away from their family.

The parallel between the two communities is simply due to a matter of dates: Jews have been settled in Britain for much longer, initially mixing with its own circles and then emerging into wider society, while this is a process through which the Sikhs are now engaging. The result is inevitable: those who work together during the day, play together afterwards. Whether they meet at university, the office or gym, Jews and Sikhs interact with those from other backgrounds and fall in love.

The Sikhs may wish to learn from what happened to the Jewish community: at first the rabbis denied there was an issue, as if talking about it would somehow endorse and encourage it. Then, when the intermarriage rate began to rise to a point at which it could not be ignored, they strongly condemned it in sermons and articles.

Some of the language used was extreme, referring to intermarriage as a 'cancer' within Judaism that was destroying the faith. But rabbinic fulminations were no match for social trends. For almost three decades I ran seminars to counsel mixed-faith couples and never did any couple ask , 'Rabbi, shall we get married', but instead they said ' Rabbi, we are getting married, can you help?'

Eventually, the community realised that ostracising Jews who had married non-Jews just guaranteed they were lost to Judaism, and it was far better to welcome the non-Jewish partner and introduce them to the Jewish way of life. A minority convert, but those who do not at least come to respect the Jewish traditions of their partner and are willing to discuss passing them on any children.

We have learnt that it is very hard to lessen the rate of intermarriage, but we can effect its impact depending on our reaction, and whether we greet the couples with a smile or a scowl, push them away or embrace them. Most Jews who marry a non-Jew do so not because they want to reject their Jewish heritage, but because they have fallen in love with that person.

It is chance, not an act of heresy.

The Sikh community would be wise not to regard marrying out as opting out, but as a social reality that is part of a tolerant pluralist society and not the automatic death-knell of their faith.

In the Leamington Spa case, it was noticeable that the priest had permitted the Sikh-Hindu to proceed and it was the laity that objected, perhaps guided more by cultural patterns rather than religious principles. He rightly saw that as a way of maintaining the faith and learning to live with mixed-faith households.