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Menken, Alice Davis

in: People

Alice Davis Menken (1870-1936): Social Worker, Pioneer In Penology, Jewish Activist and Humanitarian


Alice Davis Menken
Alice Davis Menken
Union Square, N.Y., 1893
Photo: Public Domain

Alice Davis Menken was the third of seven children of an old Sephardic Jewish family. She was also a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Involvement in helping people came first through her helping to establish the Sisterhood of Congregation Shearith Israel, also known as the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue. She served as president from 1900-1929 and helped establish and worked in the congregation’s settlement house “Neighborhood House,” on New York’s lower East side.

The settlement house and the activities related to it led to a lifetime involvement in trying to help Jewish females who engaged in antisocial behavior. She always looked to develop ways of providing an alternative to incarceration. Initially a major focus was on immigrant girls who were homeless, drug addicted, or recruited, seduced, or pressured into prostitution through what was known as the “white slave trade.” After an invitation from the magistrates she formed a Sisterhood committee which, through the cooperation of the Probation Department, allowed a representative to be present in the Womens Night Court and to provide services where feasible. Her ability to involve others and to get them to commit time and resources to helping these women was legendary. Over the years she also took some of these delinquent girls into her home.

She helped found the Jewish Board of Guardians in 1907. This became a world famous child treatment agency. It adopted the practice of having a worker in all the juvenile courts. One of the reasons that the rate of juvenile delinquency among Jews was reputed to be so low was that if the community was willing to take responsibility the courts tended to find the children emotionally disturbed and not delinquent. The evidence is that when children who commit delinquent acts can be kept out of the criminal justice system they do better than those who enter. The key is that the community honors its commitment to the children. Within the Board, Menken was chair of the Womens Division, Department of Court, Probation and Parole.

She helped found the Jewish Big Sister movement in 1911. This involved traveling the country to help the movement become established. In 1920 Governor Alfred E. Smith appointed her to the Board of Managers of the New York State Reformatory for Women. She also served on the Bureau of Social Service of the New York State Board of Parole. Later she chaired the Council of Jewish Womens committee that worked with women who were paroled from prison. In her work with young girls and women offenders the stress was on meeting basic needs, helping with education, and providing job training and placement. She recognized that some of the young woman needed psychotherapy but that for most of the people who came to court, meeting basic needs was the instrument, which helped change behavior.

In 1933, Menken wrote a book which summed up her experiences and philosophy entitled: On the Side of Mercy: Problems in Social Adjustment. She was a positive thinker who also recognized that not everyone could be helped. Her belief was that the emerging profession of social work backed by the use of scientific tools and data would bring a new era in the treatment of female offenders. The introduction to the book was written by New York Governor, Herbert H. Lehman, who went on to become a distinguished U.S. Senator. He wrote, “I consider it distinctly cheering to discover that one person, whose methods have been based exclusively on science and commonsense, believes sincerely that a real alleviation of many of our social ills only awaits the time when welfare service has perfected its technique and the community has developed a consciousness of the needs of people.”

The New York Times said in her obituary that she was a pioneer in “…the evolution of penology from an attitude of sentimentality and punishment to the broader conception of mercy and rehabilitation….”

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Social Welfare History Project (2011). Alice Davis Menken (1870-1936): Social worker, pioneer in penology, Jewish activist and humanitarian.  Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved [date accessed] from