By TAMMY La GORCE
Not counting dachshunds, cameramen and the dearly departed, about 70 souls gathered at Susan Numeroff’s house in Manhattan on June 23 for the Jewish wedding of Koshin Paley Ellison and Robert Chodo Campbell.
Ms. Numeroff’s dogs and the members of the film crews (they were documentarians, not wedding videographers — more on that later) roamed the home’s grand gallery, where an altar had been set up. There, a veil-draped bodhisattva statue stood at attention.
Mr. Paley Ellison and Mr. Campbell, who goes by Chodo, are Zen Buddhist monks and the founders of the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care. At the nonprofit center they began in 2007 in Chelsea, a few blocks from Ms. Numeroff’s house, they teach people to care for the ill and dying using practices such as meditation.
Death is what brought them together, and talk of it at their wedding was as free flowing as talk about love being patient and kind is at more typical ceremonies.
Ms. Numeroff brought it up when praising the couple for helping her husband, Marvin, die peacefully in 2015.
Mr. Paley Ellison and Mr. Campbell’s Zen teacher, Sensei Dorothy Dai-en Friedman, discussed its value while offering them the first blessing of the hourlong ceremony: “They have helped us to see that death transitions are deeply significant, and as meaningful as our entrance.”
But if the spirits of those who had been shepherded from this life with help from the two monks could be felt in Ms. Numeroff’s home during the service, one ghostly presence loomed especially large.
“At 3 a.m., I was awakened by Mimi,” said Mr. Paley Ellison’s father, Richard Ellison, referring to his own mother, who died at age 87 on June 23, 2002, exactly 15 years before the wedding. Mimi’s spirit, he said, was with them all at that moment. “Her death day was the beginning for Koshin and Chodo,” he said. “I feel her warmth and her great joyous smile, so happy for this day.”
Mr. Paley Ellison, a native of Syracuse living in Park Slope, Brooklyn, at the time, had been his grandmother Mimi’s primary caregiver for six years, bringing her to doctor’s appointments, holding her hand on ambulance rides to the hospital, and eventually, in 2002, moving her into the hospice unit at Beth Israel Medical Center, where Mr. Campbell was a volunteer.
For Mr. Paley Ellison, 47, getting to know Mr. Campbell at the hospice center that year led to a till-death-do-us-part love affair. For Mr. Campbell, the love story began six years earlier.
“Twenty-two years ago, we saw each other across the room, and I knew that my whole life had changed,” said Mr. Campbell, a former art director who began practicing Soto Zen Buddhism in 1990. “It was one of those moments where I thought, ‘Oh my goodness.’”
Mr. Campbell, who turned 64 on the couple’s official wedding day, was then living in Sag Harbor, N.Y. He was in Manhattan for the day and stopped to meditate at a Zen center, the Village Zendo, where Mr. Paley Ellison, a Buddhist since college, was also meditating.
Neither man forgot the other, though they didn’t see each other again until they met at the same Zen center in 2002. Mr. Campbell suggested that Mr. Paley Ellison bring Mimi to Beth Israel’s hospice. He also asked Mr. Paley Ellison to join him for coffee. They ended up on a bench at Father Demo Square in the West Village.
“He seduced me with his big smile and his shiny eyes,” Mr. Campbell said. But after some getting-to-know-you banter, it became clear to both that the connection ran deeper. Mr. Paley Ellison asked Mr. Campbell the most recent book he had read, for example, and out came the answer “Street Zen: The Life and Work of Issan Dorsey,” by David Schneider. Mr. Campbell had just read the same book, about a man’s journey from drug addiction to creating the first Zen hospice house.
“Can you imagine meeting someone for the first time and being excited by talk about death and dying?” said Mr. Campbell, a bearded, magnetic and lighthearted person with a slight British accent. He grew up in Birmingham, England, then traveled the world, eventually settling in New York in the mid-1980s for work.
“One of the things we talked about on that bench is how important it is to take care of people in your life and in your community,” said Mr. Paley Ellison. Both had recently ended relationships with other people and were contentedly single, preparing to ordain as Soto Zen Buddhist monks. Mr. Paley Ellison was ordained in 2002, Mr. Campbell in 2005.
“I had decided, no more dates,” Mr. Paley Ellison said. “I was waiting to meet someone who understands me.” Mr. Campbell, of course, was just that person. But he was slightly eager.
“It took weeks and months for me to convince Koshin that we should take this thing seriously,” Mr. Campbell said. “I was like, ‘Come on, come on.’ Then, maybe three months in, I said it.”
“It” being “Let’s get married.” They had only just started dating.
“We were at a street fair on the Upper West Side, walking along Amsterdam Avenue,” Mr. Campbell said. “I stopped in a store and bought two silver bands, and then I came out and said to Koshin: ‘I have a question for you. Will you marry me?’” Mr. Paley Ellison cried happy tears.
Gay marriage wasn’t legal at the time. But Mr. Paley Ellison, despite his initial cautiousness, was already thinking long term, too.
“It sounds sappy, but we knew from that first date we were destined to be together,” Mr. Paley Ellison said. A month after the street fair, he rented a U-Haul truck and moved from Brooklyn into Mr. Campbell’s Upper West Side apartment, where the couple still lives.
Mimi gave her blessings before she died a few months later. “I had a little time with her at the bedside,” Mr. Campbell said. “She said: ‘Make me a promise. You have to take care of my baby.’ I said, ‘Of course.’”
She also planted a seed that would become the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care when she told Mr. Paley Ellison that he and Mr. Campbell should start a nonprofit, where they could teach others how to care for people the way they had cared for her.
“That’s the amazing thing, that she gave us the idea,” Mr. Paley Ellison said.
It took some years, and a party, to set it all in motion.
On March 3, 2007, Mr. Paley Ellison and Mr. Campbell were unofficially wed at a Zen commitment ceremony in Manhattan. Instead of accepting wedding gifts, they asked for donations to create the center. It began operating a few months later and has since graduated more than 400 students, who have gone on to care for more than 90,000 people at their bedsides, in homes and at hospices.
“They’re two funny monks who changed the world by helping people who are dying,” said Alex Von Bidder, a longtime friend of the couple’s and a guest at their legal wedding. “Their first child was the contemplative care center.”
[Video: The wedding of Koshin Paley Ellison and Chodo Campbell on June 23, 2017. Watch on YouTube.]
The wedding of Koshin Paley Ellison and Chodo Campbell on June 23, 2017.
Video by Sandi DuBowski
The official marriage, like the unofficial one, was Mr. Campbell’s idea. He reproposed in 2016. “I thought, for our 10-year anniversary, what could be more fun and more radical than to get legally married,” he said.
Two film crews showed up for the wedding. One was working on a documentary about the officiant, the conservative rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie, a friend of the grooms’.
Another film crew belonged to a team led by Dan Harris, an anchor on ABC’s “Nightline.” Mr. Harris is making a film about his own training at the New York Zen Contemplative Care Center and his work with Mr. Paley Ellison and Mr. Campbell.
Rabbi Lau-Lavie broke with the Rabbinical Assembly when he agreed to marry a Jew (Mr. Paley Ellison) and a non-Jew (Mr. Campbell). He said that he thought carefully before agreeing to marry the men, who wore robes and skullcaps, stood under a huppah and performed the ceremonial breaking of glass once they were legally married. Ultimately, it was Mr. Campbell’s commitment to embracing Judaism after marriage that won over the rabbi.
The designer Donna Karan, who got to know the couple through her work as the founder of Urban Zen Integrative Therapy, was among the guests. So was Shelley Rubin, a founder of the Rubin Museum of Art. “I’ve said to friends, ‘When I’m dying, will you call them first?’” Ms. Rubin said. “I’m willing to bet that more than half the people in this room have said the same thing.”