Over the years, Hebrew Rest has served as a place of comfort and remembrance for Jews in Waco. More than just a burial place, the cemetery’s headstones speak to the city’s rich Jewish heritage.
One of Waco’s founding fathers, Jacob de Cordova, was a Jewish immigrant from Jamaica. He is the first in a long line of Jewish citizens that have called Waco home. Located in Central Texas, Waco seems to be an unlikely landing spot for European Jewish immigrants since it is not a major metropolitan city. However, people of Jewish heritage have been finding their way to Waco since the mid-1800s.
Scores of Jewish immigrants came to America in the late nineteenth century in order to escape the pogroms in Poland that saw Eastern European Jews persecuted and killed for their religious beliefs. To many of these newcomers to Texas, Waco appeared to have limitless potential. Its cotton industry, railroads, and proximity to cities such as Dallas and Austin made Waco a very desirable place to settle. Committed to helping their new town grow and prosper, these early Jewish citizens opened businesses and retail stores. Perhaps the most well-known of these early Waco businesspeople are Isaac Goldstein and Louey Migel. Together, they founded the Goldstein-Migel Department Store, a commercial center that remained a staple in the Waco business community for many years.
The first Jewish organization to appear in Waco was the Hebrew Benevolent Association. As a philanthropic association, it regularly provided aid to newly arrived Jewish residents in Waco. Members voted for the Hebrew Benevolent Association to purchase the original land for the Hebrew Rest Cemetery on August 13, 1869. The land is located on what was then South First Street.
More land was added to Hebrew Rest in 1893. Waco’s growing Jewish population towards the end of the twentieth century necessitated this expansion, but even then space remained scarce. To ensure placement, families often reserved burial plots long before their loved ones passed away. Each burial plot in the cemetery is privately owned by the family or individual who purchased it. Therefore, the cemetery holds great meaning to those families who have loved ones resting within its fences.
In 1931, the Hebrew Benevolent Association became the Hebrew Rest Association. This transfer was due to the growing number of Jewish private groups and charity organizations that wanted to help maintain the cemetery. Members of the association have tirelessly maintained the grounds of the cemetery since its founding.
Hebrew Rest celebrated its centennial in 1969 with a religious ceremony held at the cemetery. The well-known rabbi of Temple Rodef Sholom, Mordecai Podet, oversaw the event. The celebration represented a century of solemn dedication and fervent support from Waco’s Jewish community.
Although the cemetery’s surroundings have changed with the construction of Interstate 35 and the growth of Baylor University, the small plot of revered land remains the same.