Canada: Virtual Jewish History Tour | Synagogues | Combating Anti-Semitism
Ottawa is a city in the province of Ontario; capital of Canada; situated at the junction of the Ottawa and Rideau rivers.
Settled in the early 1800s, Ottawa was originally called Bytown (1826) after Colonel John By, who supervised the building of the Rideau Canal. In 1855 it was incorporated as the city of Ottawa, and in 1857 Queen Victoria chose Ottawa as the capital of Canada. The current city of Ottawa, population 774,072 (2001 census), was created in 2001 out of the amalgamation of Ottawa with 11 surrounding local municipalities.
The development of a Jewish community in Ottawa began in the latter half of the 19th century. According to census records, there were no Jews in Bytown in 1851. Moses Bilsky first went to Ottawa in 1857 or 1858, though he did not permanently settle there until some years later. In 1861 the census showed six Jews residing in Ottawa; for 1871 none is shown and in 1881 there were 20 Jews, more than half of whom were members of the families of John Dover, a dry goods merchant, and Aaron Rosenthal, a jeweler and silversmith. By 1891 the number of Jews had more than doubled to 46. There has been growth in Ottawa's Jewish population in every decade since. In 1901 there were almost 400 Jews in Ottawa. The number increased more than tenfold to approximately 5,000 at the end of World War II. In 2001 Ottawa had almost 13,500 Jews, making it home to the fifth largest Jewish population in Canada. Between 1881 and 1921 Jews arriving from the pogroms and restrictions in Russia and Eastern Europe contributed to the rapid rise in the size of Ottawa's Jewish community. A second period of rapid growth occurred between the 1960s and 1980s when the rise of French-Canadian nationalism in Quebec and election of the separatist Parti Québécois government led many Jews to leave Montreal for Toronto, Ottawa, and other Canadian cities.
Organized congregational life in Ottawa began in 1892 when Moses Bilsky and John Dover helped found Adath Jeshurun. In 1895, the congregation's first synagogue was completed and within a decade it moved to a new building. Adath Jeshurun's first religious functionary was the Rev. Jacob Mirsky and local businessman A.J. *Freiman served as the congregation's president from 1904 to 1930. In 1902 a second Ottawa congregation, Agudath Achim, was founded. Its services were held in a congregant's house until a synagogue was erected in 1912. The Machzikei Hadas congregation was founded in 1906 by newly arrived immigrants who desired their own Orthodox synagogue. The congregation has changed location several times, and its rabbi at the outset of the 21st century, Reuven Bulka, has served as spiritual leader since 1967.
B'nai Jacob synagogue was founded in 1911 for Jews living in Ottawa's west end. Services were first held in a public hall or in a private home, but in 1914 the congregation bought a house which they turned into a synagogue. In 1936 the Agudath Israel Congregation, also in the city's expanding west end, was organized and two years later converted a former Anglican church into its synagogue. In 1948, Agudath Israel bought a new property on which it built a synagogue. Agudath Israel affiliated with the Conservative movement in 1951. Its current home was dedicated in 1960, and a new 400-seat sanctuary added in 1966. In 2005 Agudath Israel was the largest congregation in Ottawa, with a membership of approximately 850 families. In 1956 Ottawa's first two congregations, Adath Jeshurun and Agudath Achim, both Orthodox and both located near one another, merged to form Beth Shalom. Faced with declining membership, the B'nai Jacob amalgamated into Beth Shalom in 1971.
Since the 1960s, Ottawa's Jewish religious life has demonstrated both growth and increasing pluralism of expression. In 1966, the Young Israel Congregation was founded to serve the needs of Orthodox worshipers living in Ottawa's west end. A new sanctuary was dedicated in 1980. In 1966 Ottawa's Reform congregation, Temple Israel, was organized and, after first holding services in a public school, acquired its own home in 1971. After a destructive fire less than a year later, a new synagogue was built and dedicated in 1975. Adath Shalom, an egalitarian Conservative havurah, was established in 1978 and Beth Shalom West, a modern Orthodox congregation, was created as a west end satellite of Beth Shalom. Its new synagogue was completed in suburban Nepean in 1985. The Ottawa Reconstructionist Havurah and the Sephardi Association both organized in 1987, and the Ottawa Torah Center Chabad was established in Barrhaven in 1997. Ottawa's newest congregation, the Orthodox Community Ohev Yisroel, held its first service in 2004 near the University of Ottawa.
The Ottawa Jewish community's first cemetery was established in 1893 but by the early 1970s a new cemetery was needed. In 1976 the New Jewish Community Cemetery of Ottawa was consecrated. Originally each synagogue had its own burial society, but in 1918 all the burial societies amalgamated to form the Ottawa Chevra Kadisha. In 1953 the Chevra Kadisha purchased a vacant synagogue building and in 1957 dedicated the building as the Jewish Community Memorial Chapel. In 1997 it relocated to newer facilities.
In 1934 the city's Orthodox synagogues formed a kehillah, a unified Jewish community organization called the Jewish Community Council of Ottawa / Vaad Ha'Ir. A.J. Freiman served as its president until his death on June 4, 1944. The day-to-day operations of the Vaad Ha'Ir were directed by Hy Hochberg from 1946 until his death in 1985. The Jewish Community Council continues to serve as the central planning, coordinating, community relations, and fundraising body for the Ottawa community.
Jewish education is served by several day and afternoon schools. Hillel Academy, established in 1949, is the largest of three community Hebrew day schools, offering study from junior kindergarten to grade eight. Cheder Rambam School and the Torah Academy offer a more Orthodox early childhood education. Jewish schools offering afternoon programs include the Ottawa Talmud Torah, Star of David, Temple Israel, and Ottawa Modern Jewish School. The Ottawa Torah Institute is the community yeshivah high school for boys. Founded in 1982, it was Ottawa's first full-time Jewish high school. A sister institution, Machon Sarah High School for Girls, was founded in 1990 and shares the Ottawa Torah Institute's teaching staff, albeit at a different campus. Two other Jewish high schools are Yitzhak Rabin, a day school, and Akiva Evening High School. The Kollel of Ottawa, located adjacent to the Soloway Jewish Community Centre, is a center for advanced study of Torah, talmudic law, and Judaic studies by committed adult learners.
Ottawa has contributed a number of national Jewish community leaders including A.J. Freiman, national president of the Zionist Organization of Canada from 1920 to his death in 1944; his wife, Lillian Freiman, a leader of Canadian Hadassah; their son Lawrence Freiman, president of the Zionist Organization of Canada for several terms, and Hyman Bessin, head of the Canadian Mizrachi movement and from 1970 president of the Federated Zionist Organization of Canada. Ottawa Jews have also played an active role in Ottawa municipal affairs. In 1902 Samuel Rosenthal was the first of several Jewish aldermen in Ottawa and in 1975 Lorry Greenberg was the first Jew elected mayor of Ottawa, a position he held until he retired in 1978. Jews have also served on the Ottawa Board of Control and on the Ottawa Public School Board and a Jew was elected mayor of South Hull, a Quebec municipality across the Ottawa River from Ottawa.
Ottawa's Jewish community supports a wide array of programs and services. The Ottawa Jewish Bulletin, founded in 1938, is the community's official newspaper. The Jewish Community Centre was established in 1951. By 1960 the JCC complex included Beth Shalom Synagogue, the Talmud Torah, and a gymnasium. Founded in 1953, the Ottawa Home for the Aged opened its Hillel Lodge in 1965. With the growth and westward shift of the Jewish community, a new Jewish community campus was developed in the city's west end. In 1983 a 7.8 acre site and high school building was purchased and is today home to the Hillel Academy, Talmud Torah Afternoon School, Ottawa Modern Jewish School, and Akiva Evening High School. In 1998, the Jewish Community Centre moved to more modern facilities and now houses a library, archives, athletic facilities, social halls and meeting rooms, a mikveh, kosher restaurant, and offices of many Jewish communal organizations, including those of the Vaad Ha'Ir. Hillel Lodge also relocated in 2000 to a new long-term care facility built across from the JCC, and the Tamir Foundation operates a nearby home for Jewish adults with developmental disabilities.
As Canada's capital, Ottawa is home to the Parliament Buildings, Supreme Court, Royal Mint, Bank of Canada, National Research Council, National Gallery, Canadian Museum of Civilization, War Museum, National Arts Centre, and many other administrative and cultural institutions. One of these, the Library and Archives of Canada, houses numerous publications, documents, and archival collections of significance to the study of Canadian Jewry, as well as the Jacob M. Lowy Collection of rare incunabula, Hebraica, and Judaica. Ottawa's Jewish community continues to grow, spurred on by Ottawa's economic development as an important center of high-tech industry and the administrative seat of the federal government.
In October 2017, Canada’s first national Holocaust monument was unveiled in Ottawa by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who reaffirmed “our unshakable commitment to fight anti-Semitism, racism, xenophobia and discrimination in all its forms, and we pay tribute to those who experienced the worst of humanity.”
The monument was designed by Daniel Libeskind, the Polish-American architect responsible for Berlin’s Jewish Museum and the master plan for the World Trade Center site in New York. The Canadian memorial depicts the points of a star, which “remains the visual symbol of the Holocaust — a symbol that millions of Jews were forced to wear by the Nazis to identify them as Jews, exclude them from humanity and mark them for extermination.” Triangular spaces in the monument represent the badges that Nazi Germany used to identify the other groups of people who were held in camps and ultimately murdered, among them gays and lesbians, Roma and Jehovah’s Witnesses, socialists and trade unionists.
A controversy immediately erupted over a plaque outside the monument that failed to mention Jews or anti-Semitism. The plaque paid tribute to the “millions of men, women and children murdered during the Holocaust” and the “survivors who persevered and were able to make their way to Canada after one of the darkest chapters in history.” Canada’s Heritage minister, Mélanie Joly, subsequently ordered the removal and replacement of the plaque. She said the monument commemorated “the six million Jews, as well as the five million other victims, that were murdered during the Holocaust.”
M.H. Arnoni, in: V. Grossman, Canadian Jewish Year Book, vol. 2 (1940–1941): 115–20; S. Berman in: Pathways to the Present: Canadian Jewry and Canadian Jewish Congress (1986), 50–56; M. Bookman, in: E. Gottesman (ed.), Canadian Jewish Reference Book and Directory, 1963 (1963), 387–405; H.S. Roodman, The Ottawa Jewish Community: Looking Back, an Historical Chronicle of Our Community for the Years 1857–1987, 5617–5747 (1989).