It is customary for Jews to create a Jewish cemetery in the communities where they live. Mount Nebo, a small cemetery easy to overlook as you drive by, lies next to the much larger Greenwood Memorial Park along North Government Way on the west side of Spokane; it is the burial site for about 400 Jews.
The approximately 4-acre cemetery can accommodate 1,400 bodies, “but it will probably take us more than 100 years to get to that number,” said Dick Rubens, chair of the cemetery committee at Spokane’s Temple Beth Shalom, which owns Mount Nebo.
Especially for Orthodox and many Conservative Jews, it is not just customary but paramount to establish a Jewish cemetery, Rubens said.
Mount Nebo is actually the second Jewish cemetery established in Spokane, the first one dedicated in 1914 near where the Spokane International Airport is located. It was called Ahalath Israel Cemetery and owned by the Keneseth Israel Congregation. Not utilized very often and with ground not very conducive for burials, the land was sold not long after its dedication.
The current site was purchased from the railroad soon after, and one section was prepared to accept burials. In time, other areas within the grounds have been made ready for the interment of members of the Jewish faith.
Of course, Jews can be buried in other cemeteries, and the reform movement of Judaism is less strict about burial customs. But, Rubens explained, in order to be buried at Mount Nebo, which adheres to more orthodox customs, a person must be Jewish by birth or conversion. Burials must be full-bodied (no cremations) and the bodies ritually prepared (wrapped in a shroud, wearing cloth garments with no zippers or buttons and without being embalmed) and with a casket containing no metal.
Spokane dentist Dr. David Cowen (known for his Peerless Dentists advertisements) did a great deal to improve Mount Nebo. Rubens recalled that toward the end of World War II, Cowen was in poor health and told by his physician to get out into the sun and to exercise, “so on his own, he’d go out there and start cleaning up the grounds, which was just scrub land. He’d figure out what he wanted to do and then go hire day laborers and go with them to pick up rock and clear the land. And he regained his health.”
Cowen, who served in the Legislature from 1935-’65, wanted to honor his mother, Yetta Cohen, who is buried in Oregon, and in 1945 erected a monument for her at Mount Nebo. When he died in 1975, he left a considerable sum to the cemetery, enabling the temple to build a perimeter road around the cemetery, install a sprinkler system, clear out land for burial sites and put in a house for cemetery caretakers.
“He was quite a man,” Rubens recalled. “During the Depression, he accepted produce from farmers for payment and stacked it up outside the Zucor Building so people could come by and take what they needed. He’d also give out tickets to children so they could ride the Carrousel at the old Natatorium Park.”
Perhaps the most moving memorial in the cemetery was erected in memory of the Lassman and Bialogrod families. Eva Lassman, honored in Spokane for her refusal to give in to hate, is a survivor of the Holocaust, as was her husband, Walter “Wolf” Lassman, who died in 1976 and was buried at Mount Nebo. They survived the concentration camps to meet, marry and make a life in Spokane. Because their families did not survive the atrocities, several years after her husband’s death she erected a monument at Mount Nebo listing the names of those lost family members.
The monument stands next to Walter Lassman’s grave.
Visitors to the cemetery might notice pebbles and other objects placed on the gravesite markers. This is tradition: leaving a sign that the grave was visited, that the loved one is not forgotten and that memory lives as long as stone endures.
The name of the cemetery is also steeped in Jewish history. Mount Nebo (also spelled Nevo) is the site outside Israel where it was written that Moses was buried, though exactly where is not known.
As is true with other cemeteries in Spokane, Mount Nebo Cemetery helps tell the story of part of the region’s history, which Jewish settlers and residents have helped form since the 1800s.