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Home of Peace Memorial Park and Jewish Cemeteries in East Los Angeles: Expansion and Decline
Research and Images by Rachel Trombetta, with editorial support from Caroline Luce
As the Jewish population of Boyle Heights increased in the 1920s, the Jewish cemeteries of East Los Angeles expanded as well. In June 1926, the largest of these cemeteries, the Home of Peace, announced its plans to erect a mausoleum to house family vaults and crypts with an interior chapel, which would be operated by the long-time manager of the cemetery, Nathan Manilow. Manilow, whose father Herman had supervised Jewish burials for Congregation B’nai B’rith, formed a partnership with Nathan Simons, Manilow & Simons, to establish an on-site mortuary and mausoleum that would operate independently of the Home of Peace as a complement to the cemetery.
After years of fundraising, construction finally began. Manilow & Simons hired architect William Allen to design a Moorish Revival style building of white marble and stained glass, echoing the architectural style of the new Wilshire Boulevard Temple (Congregation B’nai B’rith) completed in 1929. They carved a central pathway to the mausoleum lined by palm trees to draw visitors, flanked by the graves of prominent members of the synagogue, including Jack and Harry Warner, Carl Laemmle, and Louis B. Mayer. The mausoleum added beauty and sophistication to the Home of Peace grounds, offering an additional attraction to Jewish Angelenos seeking a final resting place for their loved ones, so much so that the building was expanded to include an additional 1,000 crypts in 1937.
By the 1960s, the Home of Peace cemetery had almost 10,000 graves and its mausoleum had over 6,000 crypts, housed in both the original mausoleum and a second, modern style building added to the grounds. But Home of Peace, along with the other Jewish cemeteries in East Los Angeles, also faced new financial pressures in the postwar era. A combination of housing and development policies, freeway construction, and upward mobility resulted in the rapid flight of the Jewish population out of Boyle Heights, prompting the relocation of the neighborhood’s Jewish institutions and synagogues as well, including those that supported the cemeteries in the area. The westward shift of the centers of Jewish community life in Los Angeles resulted in the construction of new Jewish cemeteries in those areas–including Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale (f. 1913), Hillside Memorial Park in Culver City (f. 1941), Mount Sinai Memorial Park in the Hollywood Hills (f. 1953) and Eden Memorial Park in Mission Hills (f. 1954)–creating new competition for the cemeteries in East L.A. The number of visitors to, and new burials in, those older institutions declined precipitously, causing great financial strain.
The smaller cemeteries adjoining Home of Peace provide examples of these dilemmas. Originally established in downtown Los Angeles, the Beth Israel Congregation had relocated to Beverly Boulevard in the Fairfax District in 1953, closer to where its congregants lived but an hour’s drive away from its cemetery. Synagogue leaders soon found it difficult to sustain the work of the chevra kadisha at the cemetery because their congregants were no longer interested in visiting the cemetery or being buried there, and the cemetery grounds gradually fell into disrepair. The Agudath Achim cemetery confronted similar problems: the synagogue first moved to the West Adams district in 1936 and then merged with another congregation (Rodef Sholom-Etz Chaim), reestablishing itself on Fairfax Avenue as the Judea Congregation in 1957. Since both the location and composition of the congregation had changed significantly, fewer and fewer members showed interest in the old cemetery and by 1968, the grounds were already showing signs of blight.
Sensing the looming crisis facing the city’s oldest Orthodox cemeteries, a group of local rabbis affiliated with the Orthodox and Hassidic communities established Agudath Ner Chaim, an organization expressly devoted to their preservation in 1977. For years, they worked to clean and restore the grounds, but even that effort proved to be too costly and difficult. By the 1980s, both Beth Israel and Agudath Achim had been sold to Chevra Kadisha Mortuary, a for-profit Orthodox mortuary company that continues to operate the cemeteries today. The Home of Peace was also sold in the 1980s, as maintaining the grounds became a financial burden for the Wilshire Boulevard Temple. It was purchased by Service Corporation International (SCI), a Texas-based firm which, by acquiring local funeral homes and cemeteries, became one of the largest “death-care” corporations in the USA.
Because it was not affiliated with a specific congregation, Mount Zion cemetery faced the greatest financial challenges. The Jewish Free Burial Society gradually collapsed in the 1950s, prompting it to turn over the land upon which its cemetery was built to the Los Angeles Jewish Federation, and then to discontinue its free burial program for indigent Jews in 1969. While the Jewish Family Services, with help from the Jewish Federation, reestablished the Jewish Community Burial Program a few years later, the program had no connection to Mount Zion cemetery. The Jewish Federation limited its involvement in the cemetery to paying taxes on the property, and by 1970, the B’nai B’rith Messenger reported that the cemetery was overgrown with weeds and covered in vandalism.
Then the cemeteries in East Los Angeles faced their greatest challenge yet: earthquakes. The already neglected cemetery grounds were devastated by the Whittier-Narrows quake in 1987 and then again by the Northridge Earthquake in 1994. Matsevahs were damaged, knocked over and broken, adding to the existing disrepair of the facilities. While community-wide campaigns to restore Mount Zion cemetery had been mounted in 1971 and then again in 1985, those efforts were undone by the earthquakes, leaving the cemetery in terrible shape. Fortunately, in 1995, the Jewish Genealogical Society of Los Angeles and Jewish Historical Society of Southern California came together to organize volunteers to clean up matsevahs and record all of the epitaphs at Mount Zion, as part of their broader efforts to document Boyle Heights’ Jewish history.
Similar efforts to restore Home of Peace began in 2004, when Richard George, a former employee of Glasband Mortuary, purchased the grounds, returning it to local, Jewish ownership. Between 2011-2013, the Wilshire Boulevard Temple raised $47.5 million to fund significant restoration work on the site, establishing an endowment fund that will be used to fund care for the cemetery as long as possible in the future. The fate of East Los Angeles’ other Jewish cemeteries is less certain. While Chevra Kadisha Mortuary continues to accept new burials at its locations there, as the cemeteries get closer to reaching capacity, it remains unclear what will happen to them in the future. And since the final burial at Mount Zion in 1998, it has remained closed to the public and continues to suffer from neglect. A 2013 article in the Los Angeles Times, and follow-up piece in the Jewish Journal, again prompted a fundraising effort on the part of the Jewish Federation and Chabad of Los Angeles that generated enough funds for another cemetery clean up effort, but with estimated annual operating costs of $30-40,000, it is unclear whether those efforts can be sustained.
What will happen to the Jewish cemeteries of East Los Angeles? Today's Los Angeles Jewish community will have to decide.