BILSKY, MOSES, merchant and communal leader; b. 10 Dec. 1829 in Kovno (Kaunas, Lithuania), son of Ely Bilsky; m. 1874 Pauline Reich in Brooklyn (New York City), and they had six sons and six daughters; d. 4 Jan. 1923 in Ottawa.
After Moses Bilsky arrived in the Canadas in 1843, he lived with his father in Montreal and then in Kemptville, Upper Canada. When Ely Bilsky went to Palestine – some accounts say he returned to Russia – Moses stayed with relatives in New York State. He moved to Ottawa in 1856 or 1857, the first Jew to locate there.
In 1862 he was in the Cariboo goldfields of British Columbia. Finding the lawlessness and cost of living there distasteful, and recognizing the small likelihood of success, he went to San Francisco, where, in the midst of the Civil War, he joined the Union forces. He was wounded while attempting to quell rioting in that city following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. After the war he was offered a mining job in South America, but once he landed in Panama he discovered that he had been hired to participate in gun-running to Mexico, in an attempt to overthrow Emperor Maximilian. Without funds for passage, he stowed away on a ship back to San Francisco.
By 1874 Bilsky was on the east coast, where he married Pauline Reich, a native of Berlin. They then resided in New York; their first child, Alexander, was born in the United States in 1876. The family soon came to Ontario and lived in Kemptville, Mattawa, and then Ottawa, where in 1877 Bilsky opened a pawnshop. About 1901 he took Alexander into his second business, a watchmaking, jewellery, and optician’s shop, forming M. Bilsky and Son Limited. During the interval the family spent some time away from Ottawa: they were in Mattawa from about 1882 to 1885 and in Montreal from 1885 to 1891.
The Bilsky residence on Nicholas Street became the centre of Jewish life in Ottawa. Immigrants found a ready welcome and Pauline would rise early to wash and mend their clothes, hoping to diminish their embarrassment over their limited belongings. On holy days, services were conducted, usually by Moses (who may have been illiterate in English). He acquired the city’s first Torah, from New York, and in 1892 was instrumental in founding the first synagogue, Adath Jeshurun, beside his pawnshop. He also organized a chevra kadisha (burial society) and, in 1899, a Zionist society. In the larger community, he belonged to the masonic lodge in Kemptville and the Foresters in Montreal.
According to the Ottawa Evening Journal, Bilsky retired from business in 1915, at which point M. Bilsky and Son was reorganized as Bilsky Limited. Some members of his large family became prominent. His daughter Lillian* was active in national and international philanthropy; her husband, Archibald Jacob Freiman, established a department store in Ottawa and would serve as president of the Zionist Organization of Canada. Another son-in-law, Allan Bronfman* of Winnipeg and Montreal, was a lawyer, industrialist, and community activist.
Ottawa’s regard for Moses Bilsky was demonstrated following his death in January 1923 at his home, then on Daly Avenue. The Ottawa Citizen, which announced his passing on its front page, described him as a man of “sterling worth and honesty” in business. Despite the extreme cold, his funeral was attended by a large crowd of all faiths, including Mayor Frank H. Plant and members of the city council, the provincial legislature, and the dominion parliament. After the King Edward Avenue Synagogue was filled, hundreds stood in the street. Bilsky’s remains were taken into the sanctuary during the service, a rarity in Jewish practice and the first time such an honour had been granted in Ottawa.
AO, RG 80-2; 80-8-0-915, no.9448. ...BCA, GR-0216, vols.34–35. ...NA, RG 31, C1, 1901, Ottawa, St Nicholas Ward, div.3: 22 (mfm. at AO). ...Ottawa Citizen, 6 Jan. 1923. ...Ottawa Evening Journal, 5 Jan. 1923. ...Yiddisher Zhurnal/Daily Hebrew Journal (Toronto), 8 Jan. 1923. ...Canadian Jewry, prominent Jews of Canada . . . , ed. Zvi Cohen (Toronto, ). ...Directory, Ottawa, 1878–1901. ...Bernard Figler, Lillian and Archie Freiman: biographies (Montreal, ). ...The Jew in Canada: a complete record of Canadian Jewry from the days of the French régime to the present time, ed. A. D. Hart (Toronto and Montreal, 1926). ...Ontario Geneal. Soc., Ottawa branch, The United Jewish Community Cemetery, concession IV, lot 7, Gloucester Township, Carleton County, Bank Street, Highway 31, Ottawa, Ontario (Ottawa, 1997), sect.1: 1–2.