This post is brought to you by Jan Kurman, a University of Ottawa student volunteer at the Ottawa Jewish Archives.
The city of Ottawa today hosts a variety of people from a long list of different ethnicities and backgrounds. Associations, businesses, clubs, and other organizations have been formed to welcome and provide inclusiveness to newcomers. Institutions such as the Ottawa Community Immigrant Services Organization and the Catholic Centre for Immigrants support new Canadians as they strive to start a better life in Ottawa. Community supports like these make a huge difference in the lives of many and they are sometimes overlooked. Looking back less than a century ago can remind us how times have changed in our city.
In the early 1900s the Jewish community in Ottawa was faced with a problem. Driven by mass immigration from eastern Europe, the Jewish population doubled in size approximately five times between 1901 and 1911. The community supports we have today were non-existent during this time. Moses Bilsky and his family, considered the first Jewish settlers in Ottawa, took care of the many Jewish immigrants arriving in Ottawa. Especially those who had come with no family or friends in the city. Bilsky made sure to help newcomers find employment and even let them stay at his home until they were able to make a living.
As the Jewish community grew, organizations were formed to provide support for immigrant families. In 1912, the Ottawa Hebrew Benefit Society was created. It was one of the first Jewish organizations in Ottawa. The Society provided crucial services to the Jewish community. Members who subscribed to the organization would pay into a sick benefit fund, which would then be administered to individuals in distress. Doctors under contract by the Society would be paid directly by the fund to help ailing members. Money would also be given to those unable to work. This was a big deal at the time since public insurance programs were largely absent in Canada.
For most of the 20th century, Canada did not have a universal healthcare system. Public medical coverage was absent from the lives of Canadians up until the 1960s. If anyone got sick, they were expected to pay out of pocket for a doctor or medicine. Sometimes becoming sick would also result in unemployment, further exacerbating the problem. For a small weekly fee, the Society would provide its members with a safety net. No matter what happened in the future, members would always be taken care of. The Society would pay for you to see a doctor, cover the cost of your medicine and compensate you for lost days of work. The Ottawa Hebrew Benefit Society was modelled after the Hebrew Sick Benefit Association of Montreal, which was founded in 1892 and was the first Jewish sick benefit society in all of Canada.
The Ottawa Hebrew Benefit Society was not limited to only providing health and employment insurance to its members. Providing a welcoming environment for newcomers was another function of the Society. Visiting committees were arranged to visit the hospitals or homes of sick members. Signed get-well cards and flowers were brought to lighten the mood of those bedridden by maladies. Immigrants who had just arrived in Ottawa with no relatives to care for them would find these visits extremely comforting.
Meetings with members were regularly organized by the Society. Banquets and other social activities allowed newcomers to mingle with older residents who would often provide valuable advice. Ottawa’s early Jewish immigrants came from an array of different countries with varying cultures. However, the Yiddish language allowed them to communicate and bond despite their different origins. New members were encouraged to take a position in one of the organization’s many committees. Adjusting to a new life in Ottawa was difficult for Jewish immigrants. Many had to let go of their livelihoods and relatives for a chance to come here. A majority of the newcomers hailed from eastern Europe and the journey to Ottawa was expensive. Arriving penniless with no source of income further isolated immigrants. These social events helped them find friends, jobs, and a sense of belonging to their community.
Though mostly focusing on its members, the Ottawa Hebrew Benefit Society also actively supported other organizations and initiatives that were outside their immediate community. During the Second World War, the Society created a War Services Fund to provide enlisted men with charitable services. Victory bonds were bought to support the federal government in financing the war effort. The Society also expressed its loyalties to Canada by mandating that “God Save The King” was played at the end of every meeting. Additionally, annual fundraisers were held to raise money for local Zionist organizations.
In the 1960s the Society started to become less and less necessary. Canada began to develop a universal healthcare coverage system and in 1968, the government of Ontario had taken over most of the Society’s activities. After decades of providing crucial services to the Jewish community, the Ottawa Hebrew Benefit Society ceased to operate. Without the enormous support it supplied it is hard to imagine where Ottawa’s Jewish community would be today. From providing health and employment insurance to creating an inclusive environment for newcomers, the Society went above and beyond to lend a helping hand to new Canadians.
- “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 18 Jun. 2020.
- “Ottawa Hebrew Benefit Society fonds – The Canadian Jewish ….” https://www.cjhn.ca/en/permalink/cjhn80502. Accessed 20 Jun. 2020.
- “Not Written in Stone – OpenEdition Books.” https://books.openedition.org/uop/2047. Accessed 18 Jun. 2020.
- “Experience Heritage – Jewish Public Library.” http://www.jewishpubliclibrary.org/blog/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/Sick-Benefit-Societies.pdf. Accessed 17 Jun. 2020.
- “OCISO.” https://ociso.org/. Accessed 17 Jun. 2020.
- Home – “CCI.” http://cciottawa.ca/. Accessed 17 Jun. 2020.