Moses Bilsky: The Legendary Life of Ottawa’s First Jewish Settler

This post is brought to you by Jan Kurman, a University of Ottawa student volunteer at the Ottawa Jewish Archives.

Moses Bilsky as a young man in 1860.
OJA 1-167

The Jewish community of Ottawa today is large, thriving, and a source of pride for its members. However, this was not always the case. 150 years ago, you could probably count Ottawa’s Jewish population with your fingers. There was little available in Ottawa for Jewish immigrants. The lumber industry was dominated by Irish immigrants and French Canadians and antisemitic laws set up by the Canadian government prevented Jews from working in the public service. In addition, there was no existing Jewish community that could support the arrival of newcomers. These barriers diminished the opportunities available and deterred many Jewish immigrants. But events across the globe would soon change Ottawa’s history forever.

Pogroms, violent riots usually targeting the Jewish population, were commonplace in Imperial Russia throughout the 1800s. One particular pogrom took place in Kovno (now Kaunas, Lithuania) in the early 1840s that drove Ely Bilsky and his 14 year-old son, Moses, out of town. The family first settled in Montreal in 1843, as the city already had a burgeoning and well-known Jewish community. Kemptville was the next place for the Bilsky family to settle. The Bilskys stayed just south of Ottawa for over a decade until Ely decided to move to Palestine in 1857.

Ely left Moses with some relatives in New York before he set sail for Palestine. Moses himself only stayed in New York for a short period before moving back to Canada. He made Ottawa his home between 1857 and 1860, which allegedly made Bilsky the first ever Jewish settler in Ottawa. It was very likely that he witnessed the designation of Ottawa as the capital city of Canada by Queen Victoria in 1857. At the time, Canada was just a province that consisted of Upper and Lower Canada which today represent Ontario and Quebec, respectively. In 1861, looking to make it big and perhaps hungry for some adventure, Moses went westward to the promising gold fields of British Columbia.

Moses Bilsky and members of the Bilsky Family on the porch of their house on Nicholas Street, ca. 1910.

The life of a miner and prospector in British Columbia was brutal and degrading. Individuals looking for gold rarely got rich and found meagre amounts of gold nuggets. Law and order was non-existent as settlers just began to settle the region. This lifestyle and the rare chance of success did not bode well with Bilsky and he slowly made his way to San Francisco. The United States was in the midst of a bloody civil war. The Union, composed of mostly northern states and California, was attempting to quell the Confederacy, which was represented by a band of rebellious and slavery-supporting southern states. Bilsky joined the Union forces and stayed in San Francisco until 1865. While at his military post in San Francisco, Bilsky was wounded in the riots that took place in the city after President Lincoln’s assassination.

After the war, Moses was offered a mining job in Latin America and set sail to Panama. Again, Moses was hoping to make a fortune and live out a prosperous future for himself. To his disappointment, he discovered this was not to be. The whole operation was a gun-smuggling mission to Mexico and Bilsky wanted out immediately. The guns were given to rebels attempting to depose Emperor Maximillian I of Mexico. As Mexico was in an armed conflict at the time, Bilsky had an extremely difficult time leaving the unstable nation. With the help of a Jewish friend, he was able to stow away on a ship back to San Francisco.

M. Bilsky and Son Ltd. (jewelers and silversmith) on Rideau Street adjacent to Union Station, ca. 1910.
OJA 1-556-06

Moses Bilsky returned to New York in 1874 and finally decided to settle down and take a break from all his travels. He soon married Pauline Reich and they had their first child, Alexander, in 1876 while residing in the United States. The Bilsky family moved to Canada and stayed for short intervals in Mattawa, Montreal, and Ottawa. While in Ottawa, Moses was able to open a pawn shop which was located on Rideau St. It opened in 1877, and was the first business in Ottawa owned and operated by a Jewish person. The Bilskys settled in Ottawa permanently in 1891 and took up residence on Nicholas street in the Lowertown area.

The Bilsky family was a central part to Jewish life in Ottawa. New immigrants who had come to Canada with nothing but the clothes on their backs were always supported by the family. With their help, the Jewish community slowly began to grow and establish itself as an integral part of Ottawa. Moses acquired Ottawa’s first Torah from New York in 1892 and began gathering worshippers. The Bilsky household served as a congregation on holy days, where services were usually conducted by Moses himself. When the congregation grew too large, a small, wooden synagogue was erected on Rideau St in 1895. The smell from a pork factory nearby drove the community to purchase property on King Edward St that later became the beautiful Adath Jeshurun Synagogue.

Adath Jeshurun, after 1930.
OJA 5-293

With the help of his twelve children, Moses continued to live an industrious life even in old age. Bilsky finally retired from business in 1915 and lived until 1923, passing away at his home at the age of 94. The Ottawa Citizen announced his passing on their front page. Hundreds of people attended his funeral on a cold winter’s day. The synagogue quickly became packed which forced some people to wait on King Edward St to pay their respects.

Moses Bilsky’s legacy is permanently imprinted into Ottawa’s history. From poor immigrant to great adventurer to communal leader and talented businessman, Moses’ life was governed by his conscientious spirit and willingness to take risks. The Jewish community in Ottawa today is composed of eight synagogues, a number of schools, a community centre, and thousands of people. Moses Bilsky was able to lay the groundwork which allowed the Jewish community of Ottawa to flourish.


Sources:

  1. “BILSKY, MOSES – Canadian Biography.” http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/bilsky_moses_15E.html. Accessed 9 Mar. 2020.
  2.  “Moses Bilsky: The story of Ottawa’s first Jewish settler | Capital ….” https://capitalcurrent.ca/moses-bilsky-the-story-of-ottawas-first-jewish-settler/. Accessed 12 Mar. 2020.
  3. “The Jewish Community of OTTAWA | BH Open Databases.” https://dbs.bh.org.il/place/ottawa. Accessed 10 Mar. 2020.
  4.  “The Jewish Community of Lowertown, Ottawa.” http://www.virtualmuseum.ca/sgc-cms/histoires_de_chez_nous-community_stories/pm_v2.php?id=story_line&lg=English&fl=0&ex=00000787&sl=8411&pos=1. Accessed 16 Mar. 2020.

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