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Alice Davis Menken

(1870 - 1936)
By Michael Feldberg

Born to privilege in 1870 and married into wealth in 1893, Alice Davis Menken dedicated her life to helping Jewish women less fortunate than herself. Menken belonged to the Daughters of the American Revolution and was a great granddaughter of the legendary Hazzan Moses Levi Maduro Peixotto of New York’s Sephardic Congregation Shearith Israel. At a time when upper-class women were, for the most part, denied careers, independent ownership of property and the right to vote, Menken could have been content to live the life of a club woman. Instead, she forged together her Sephardic Jewish values and a progressive social philosophy to change the face of women’s correctional theory. Even more, she mobilized the other “ladies” of Shearith Israel into joining her crusade to rescue delinquent Jewish women. Judge Judith S. Kaye has said of Menken, “Led by a faith that did not stop at the synagogue door, Alice Menken went out to help those who had been dealt a much harsher hand in life.”

Alice Menken helped found the Shearith Israel Sisterhood in 1896, and presided over it from 1900 to 1929. The Sisterhood’s initial undertaking was Neighborhood House, a settlement that served immigrant families on the Lower East Side. Annually, the upper-class members of the Sisterhood helped 300 poor Jewish families obtain clothing, coal, food and medical care. In 1908, a sudden influx of “Oriental Jews,” refugees from the Balkans, Turkey, Greece and Syria flooded the Lower East Side and looked to Neighborhood House for help. Under Menken’s leadership, the Sisterhood balanced “Americanization” of these “Oriental” immigrants with retention of their Sephardic heritage. On the Fourth of July, 1912, for example, the Sisterhood distributed 500 copies of the Declaration of Independence in Ladino translation, and Menken herself organized classes in Sephardic ritual to counteract Christian missionaries working among the Oriental Jews.

Menken’s enduring contribution to Jewish social service, however, was in the field of delinquency and corrections, particularly among Jewish females. In 1907, Menken was a prime mover in creating the Jewish Board of Guardians, which was given responsibility for supervising Jewish youth during and after court-imposed probation. Menken served as director of the Department of Court, Probation and Parole for the Jewish Board of Guardians women’s division.

In 1908, at the request of New York City magistrates, Menken organized a committee of Shearith Israel women to work with the probation department of the Women’s Night Court of New York City. This court handled the cases of numerous immigrant Jewish women who were homeless, substance addicted or prostitutes arrested by the police. The magistrates asked Menken and the Sisterhood to organize a support system so that the delinquent women might have an alternative to incarceration, or be assisted upon their release. Menken recruited many of her social peers in the Sisterhood to volunteer their time, energy and financial resources on behalf of the unfortunates.

Characteristically, Menken worked harder than anyone else in this cause. In their history of Congregation Shearith Israel, David and Tamar de Sola Pool offer an insight into Menken’s dedication: “After a full day’s work she would go late at night to the Night Court for Women, sit with the poor victims dragged in by the police, sustain them in their difficulties at court, and follow through with their problems and those of their family.” In 1920, Governor Alfred E. Smith appointed Menken to the Board of Managers of the New York State Reformatory for Women, on which she served for more than a decade. Menken later served on the Bureau of Social Service of the New York State Board of Parole.

In 1911, Menken helped found the Jewish Big Sister Association and, according to historian Felicia Herman, stimulated the creation of several local chapters as she traveled around the United States. She demonstrated her commitment to personal involvement with Jewish delinquent girls by taking several of them into her home over the years.

Today, conservatives and “realists” would consider Menken’s attitudes toward corrections ultra liberal. However, Menken made a meaningful contribution toward society’s recognition that women’s penology requires different approaches than men’s, and that prevention is better than punishment. In its 1936 obituary for her, the New York Times called Menken a pioneer in “the evolution of penology from an attitude of sentimentality and punishment to the broader conception of mercy and rehabilitation.” In her published writings and personal papers, which reside at the American Jewish Historical Society, Menken argued that community involvement and improved social service delivery systems could prevent more poor women from stumbling into trouble than punishment could deter. Menken’s ideas came into ascendancy during the 1920s, when separate juvenile justice systems and correctional facilities for women became commonplace throughout the United States.

At her funeral, Rabbi David de Sola Pool reflected on the connection between Menken’s Sephardic Jewish faith and her social activism. “Her religion was not limited to the forms of the ritual which she loved, but was an outward example to those may doubt the value of religion.” Menken once said of herself that her greatest weakness was “a too strongly developed sense of optimism.” Her faith in the resiliency of the human spirit was surpassed only by her belief in Judaism.

Source: Michael Feldberg, PhD.