Although located east of the city limits, just outside of Boyle Heights, the Home of Peace, one of the city’s oldest Jewish cemeteries, was among the most important Jewish institutions in the neighborhood. Thousands of Jewish Angelenos have relatives buried there, its significance to the Jewish community—both in the neighborhood and throughout the city–grounded in Judaism itself.
Traditional halakhic (Jewish law) observance requires that a body be buried within twenty-four hours and that a set of ritual rites of purification, known as taharah, be performed on the deceased, ending with the recitation of the kaddish (mourner’s prayer). Providing burials in accordance with these ritual rites to the poor is regarded as the highest mitzvoth (commandment or good deed) because the kindness can never be repaid, and accordingly chevra kadisha (burial society) are common in all Jewish communities throughout the world. In Eastern Europe, traditional Jewish burial practice also included erecting upright matsevahs (headstones) and, in some cases, concrete slabs over the grave to protect the body from being disturbed by animals or the elements. Mourners today honor this centuries-old practice by leaving small rocks or pebbles on graves of the dead when visiting Jewish cemeteries.
These burial rites and mourning rituals were so important to the Jewish immigrants who came to Los Angeles that the first Jewish organization in the city, the Hebrew Benevolent Society (est. 1854), made procuring land for a Jewish burial ground its first priority. Within months of its founding, the HBS purchased three acres of land in Chavez Ravine north of downtown and established Los Angeles' first Jewish cemetery. Three additional acres were gifted by the Los Angeles City Council in 1868. The HBS’ remaining funds were devoted to providing proper Jewish burials to impoverished Jews and those without families nearby, as well as other social services.
By the turn of the century, the Jewish community had outgrown its burial grounds in Chavez Ravine. The site had never been ideal: the land was on a slope, making it difficult to access, its natural drainage meant that the soil became quickly saturated when it rained, and because of its proximity to the historic city center, the cemetery became surrounded by smoke stacks and industrial development as the city grew. But the HBS’ options for relocation were limited by an 1877 City Council ordinance which prevented the burial of human remains within the city limits, a policy driven by the widespread belief that decaying bodies released a toxic miasma that spread deadly diseases. Shortly after the passage of the ordinance, the City Council had granted an exception for Evergreen Cemetery to establish grounds within the city limits in Boyle Heights, dedicating a small section as a potter’s field. The Independent Order of the Odd Fellows erected their cemetery nearby in 1889 and the Catholic Calvary Cemetery relocated to unincorporated East Los Angeles a few years later. And so, with the help of a large gift from Kaspare Cohn, the HBS purchased a thirty-acre tract directly across from the Calvary Cemetery site on Stephenson Boulevard (now Whittier Boulevard) to serve as the community’s new burial grounds, dedicating the Home of Peace in May 1902.
The HBS hired a civil engineer to lay out plots on six acres of the site and enabled local synagogues and fraternal organizations to purchase sections of their own, using the funds to provide proper burials for indigent Jews in keeping with its founding principles. Over the course of the decade that followed the dedication of the Home of Peace, the remains of those buried in the Chavez Ravine location were gradually disinterred, transferred over to the new site on horse-drawn wagons, and reburied in a special “Benevolent” section. Kohn also used his social and financial capital to secure an extension of the Stephenson Avenue streetcar line to the site so that Jewish Angelenos could more easily make the trip to visit the grounds in 1908. A year later, the Los Angeles Railway Company began offering special $25 charters for funeral parties on the line, known as the descanso (“(Eternal) Rest”) car.
Soon other Jewish cemeteries followed: Congregation Beth Israel, the city’s first Orthodox congregation, purchased five acres nearby in 1906 and established its own chevra kadisha to perform burial and mourning rituals according with Orthodox customs. The congregation later purchased its own hearse and, in 1913, dedicated a small onsite chapel so that congregants could attend the burials of loved ones and charity cases alike.
The Jewish Free Burial Society (chevra chesed shel emeth), founded in 1908 by funeral directors Louis Glasband and Charles Groman to augment the efforts of the HBS, purchased a plot adjoining the Home of Peace in 1916. Offering traditional burial rites for the indigent, the JFBS had previously paid for burials at the Home of Peace and opened its own Mount Zion cemetery to save money and thereby sustain its efforts. Its cemetery became the final resting place for the most needy of Jews—including those who died in local Jewish hospitals and sanatoriums as well as county jails and the County Poor Farm—functioning as a Jewish alternative to the potter’s field at Evergreen.
And in 1919, a second Orthodox congregation, Agudath Achim (also known as Agudas Achim or Agudas Achim Anshe Sfard), purchased its own narrow strip of land north of Mount Zion for a cemetery operated by its own chevra kadisha. Congregation Beth David (later known as the Cornwell Street Shul), also briefly operated its own adjacent parcel when the synagogue was founded in 1918, but it was subsequently reabsorbed by the Home of Peace.
By the end of World War I, as Jewish migrants began settling in Boyle Heights en masse, the area just east of the neighborhood was home to all of the Jewish cemeteries in the city. Those five Jewish cemeteries, along with ones operated by the Serbian, Russian Molokan, and Chinese communities as well as Evergreen and Calvary cemeteries, created a rich landscape of mourning and memorialization in East Los Angeles.