FAQ about Ottawa's Jewish History
Here are some of the most common questions we receive regarding Ottawa’s Jewish community:
When did the first Jewish settlers come to Ottawa?
This is a bit of a difficult question to answer because we’re not entirely sure. We do have oral family histories that place some settlers in Ottawa in the 1860s, but unfortunately there are no historical records to back this up.
While Jewish settlers were definitely coming to Ottawa at that time, people generally only spent a short time here before moving on. Ottawa in the 1840s and 50s was a very rough, dirt roads lumber town and offered very little for Jewish settlers. Keeping in mind that most Jews at that time were much more stringent about religious practices such as eating strictly kosher and attending regular synagogue services; the reality was that they weren’t going to find any of those aspects of Judaism in Bytown.
It was only after Ottawa was chosen by Queen Victoria as the new capital of Canada in 1857 that the resulting influx of tradesmen, craftsmen, businessmen and government workers brought a small number of permanent Jewish settlers.
Historical documents showing names and occupations put the start of the Jewish community of Ottawa around the late 1880s.
Who was the first Jewish settler in Ottawa?
Since there were a number of Jewish settlers that came and went in the earlier history of Ottawa, we are not entirely certain of who should receive this label. One name that is a strong contender though is that of Moses Bilsky.
Born in Lithuania in 1829, Bilsky was 14 years old when he and his widowed father Ely moved to Montreal in 1843. After only a short stay, they moved to Kemptville, 55 kilometres south of Bytown. There they stayed until 1857 when Blisky turned 28.
It was at this point that Bilsky’s father Ely decided to leave Canada for Palestine, where he lived out his days. After his father’s move, Bilsky decided to travel as well.
He moved very briefly to Montreal, before apparently moving on to Ottawa. We say apparently because there is no supporting documentation that Bilsky was actually here in 1857.
According to the Bilsky family history though he was indeed here, and even witnessed the choosing of Ottawa in that year by Queen Victoria to be the Capital of Canada. He was also supposedly a witness to the future King Edward laying the cornerstone of the Parliament Buildings three years later in 1860.
If he did stay here for those three years, that would indeed make him the first Jewish settler.
In 1861, Bilsky left Ottawa and went on some adventures that included trying his hand at the gold rush in Cariboo, British Columbia, being conned into participating in a gun-smuggling operation in Panama, being smuggled out of Panama by a fellow Jew who managed to get him to San Francisco and then being recruited as a soldier in the Union Army in America’s Civil War.
After he was wounded in the leg during some skirmishes (a direct result of civil unrest after the assassination of US President Abraham Lincoln), Bilsky decided to return to Ottawa. He arrived in 1867 where he opened a jewelry store and pawn shop, as well as made a home for himself in the Lowertown district.
We are certain Bilsky was here in Ottawa in 1867 as there is a listing for him in a City Directory. However, Bilsky left Ottawa again after that time. He moved to the U.S. for a while, then returned to Ottawa in the late 1870’s, then moved to Mattawa, Ontario (a town close to North Bay), then to Montreal, and finally back to Ottawa for good in 1891.
In 1891, there were about 20 Jewish people living in Ottawa, with many of them comprised of Bilsky, his wife Pauline Reich and their children.
He set himself up as a jeweler and philanthropist. He also became a founding member of Ottawa’s first synagogue and was part of a three-man delegation to New York to select Ottawa’s first Rabbi.
Bilsky passed away in 1923 at the age of 94, and The Ottawa Citizen described him on their front page as a man of “sterling worth and honesty.”
Where did the Jewish immigrants of Ottawa come from?
The early Jewish community of Ottawa is mostly Ashkenazi in origin, with the large majority of them having come from Eastern Europe.
Specifically, many families seem to have come from Lithuania and its surrounding areas.
This is likely because when one person or family immigrates to a new land, it was common for members of the same family or village to follow those that left and settle near them. They all spoke the same language and were a tangible reminder of home in a strange new land making it that much more comforting. This seems to have been the case with a number of Lithuanian Jews.
Where did the first Jewish immigrants settle within the city?
Lowertown is the traditional area of Jewish settlement within the city.
When Colonel By started construction on the canal here in 1829, he laid out the city according to a military barracks he had built on Barrack's Hill (later to be Parliament Hill). Everything on the west side of the canal became known as "Uppertown", while everything on the east side, between the canal and the Rideau River, became “Lowertown.”
Most of Ottawa’s immigrant population and the so-called working classes settled within this area that was so close to, and included, the Byward Market – a primary place of business for many of them.
What was the first congregation in Ottawa?
Adath Jeshurun was the first congregation in Ottawa, formed in 1892.
he worshipers' first synagogue was a small wooden building that was acquired in 1895, three years after their creation. It was located at 264 Murray Street in the Market. Unfortunately, the building was situated right next to a food processing plant whose staple product was pork and beans. Because of this, the synagogue’s air was constantly permeated with the smell of cooking pork, much to everyone’s discomfort.
This, along with the steady growth of Ottawa’s Jewish community, persuaded the congregation’s leaders to plan for a larger building at another location. The culmination of this planning was the purchase of a property at 375 King Edward Avenue.
Adath Jeshurun’s beautiful new synagogue was begun in 1904 and featured two large onion domes in the style of Eastern European synagogues.
The building still stands today but is now the Seventh Day Adventist Church of Ottawa.
Who was Ottawa’s first Rabbi?
Ottawa’s first Rabbi was brought here by invitation from a three man delegation which left from Ottawa in 1894 and headed to New York City. The delegation consisted of John Dover, Moses Bilsky and a third, unknown individual. They were seeking a person to not only serve as Rabbi, but as cantor, shoichet (ritual slaughterer) and moyel as well.
After interviewing a few candidates at a Jewish seminary, the delegates chose 35-year-old Russian immigrant, Jacob Mirsky.
When Mirsky came back to the small and struggling Jewish community here, he did not confine himself to only congregation Adath Jeshurun (as he was employed to do). He worked with all of the emerging synagogues simultaneously, and as one source stated, he was “the social service and charitable arm of the Jewish community.”
He helped many young businessmen to set up successful enterprises and helped them again and again after they were established. He tried to ensure that brides from poor families were provided a dowry – a necessity at that time for a young couple just starting a life together.
As the community’s shoichet, Mirsky killed chickens and cows in the ritual manners; ensuring that kosher meat was available for all.
He retired from his duties in 1927 and when he passed away in 1942, he was mourned deeply by the entire community.
What was the Vaad Ha’Ir?
In the 1930s, a man named Caspar Caplan envisioned an umbrella organization to supervise and direct all of the key Jewish institutions for the whole community, including the Vaad HaKashrut, the Ottawa Talmud Torah, the synagogues of Ottawa, the Hebrew Benevolent Society, the Hebrew Free Loan Association, B'nai B'rith, Hadassah, Young Judea, etc....
The umbrella organization would be called the Vaad Ha'Ir (the Jewish Community Council) and would have 26 members appointed by all of the different the congregations.
In 1934, the first regular meeting of the Vaad took place. Officers were elected, the treasurer and the secretaries were named, and the president – a man named Archibald J. Freiman – was chosen.
In 2005, the Vaad was renamed the Jewish Federation of Ottawa.
The Federation has grown from a staff of five in the early 1950s to about 5) today. It consists of an 11 member Board which oversees seven committees and funds programs from more than 20 agencies.
The Federation serves the entire Jewish population of Ottawa, which was officially 14,000 in 2009, and is estimated to be about 15,000 in 2014.
When was the Jewish Community Centre Built?
During the Second World War, Ottawa had a ban on new constructions, but planning and fundraising began for a new community centre to be built at the war’s end. The Vaad Ha’Ir was looking to create a central building that would become the heart of the community. They envisioned a complex containing a school, synagogue, kosher kitchen, gym and auditorium. This would give people a gathering place that would work to ensure the community's future by providing for its youth.
In order to help the project succeed, the two oldest and largest downtown synagogues – Adath Jeshurun and Agudath Achim – merged together, and the new resulting congregation of Beth Shalom, would occupy the centre.
Located at 151 Chapel Street at Rideau, the JCC was indeed the heart of the community for decades.
However, as the Jewish population of Ottawa continued to grow, many people began moving out of the downtown core and into the West End. This shift heralded the proposition of a new community centre that would be built in a more central location.
The area around Hillel Academy off of Broadview and Carling was chosen as the site of the new centre, which would also house several Jewish agencies. As well, a new Hillel Lodge was built alongside the campus.
This building is now the Soloway Jewish Community Centre and it opened in September of 1998.