In Galveston, it was Rosanna Osterman who stepped forward and volunteered to nurse the wounded soldiers. Like many women who worked in the makeshift hospitals, she nursed both Union and Confederate soldiers. She also donated provisions to both armies. But it seems that her heart was with the Confederate cause; when a Union soldier under her care revealed that Union troops had discovered a Confederate plan to recapture the port, she sent the information to a Confederate general. The general moved up the date of attack and they were able to retake the city.
Osterman died in 1866. She left most of her considerable estate to various charities, including Jewish hospitals in New York, New Orleans and Cincinnati; Jewish Benevolent Societies in Galveston, Houston, New Orleans and Philadelphia; funds to build synagogues and Jewish schools in Galveston and Houston and bequests to non-denominational social welfare charities.
The Houston Weekly Telegraph eulogized her with these words: “Every one resident in Galveston during the war, whether soldier or civilian, knows that among the very foremost in deeds of kindness to our suffering, sick and dying soldiers, one to whom the poor Confederate soldier never applied in vain, one whose heart overflowed with all the kindliest active charities, was a Jewess, equally distinguished for her piety and careful observance of all the ceremonial duties of her religion.”
Guardian of the Lower East Side: Alice Davis Menken
Born to a wealthy Sephardic family in 1870, during America’s fabled Gilded Age, Alice Davis Menken could claim a distinguished lineage. Her mother was a descendant of the Mendez-Seixas and Maduro-Peixotto families that were active in the American Revolution and this entitled her to be a member of the exclusive Daughters of the American Revolution. Her great-grandfather, Moses Levi Maduro Peixotto, was the chazzan of Congregation Shearith Israel. And when it came time for her to marry, she married well. Her wealthy husband, attorney Mortimer Morange Menken, was a descendant of Gershom Mendes Seixas, the first native-born Jewish minister in the United States.
Alice Davis Menken might have chosen to be a lady of leisure, surrounded by all the pleasant things that money can buy. Remarkably, she chose a very different path.
The late nineteenth century was a time of conspicuous consumption for the very wealthy, but it was also a time of abject poverty for many others. Immigrants from Europe and elsewhere were pouring into the United States in vast numbers, among them many Jews, lured by the economic boom and promise of better living conditions. While some found jobs and began the slow climb up the social ladder, others – including many Jewish women and girls – fell into the abyss of addiction and prostitution. Instead of regarding these women with disdain, Alice Davis Menken became their advocate.
Davis Menken’s initial foray into social welfare occurred in 1896, when she helped organize the other upper-class ladies of Congregation Shearith Israel into a Sisterhood. The Sisterhood’s first activity was the establishment of the Neighborhood House settlement, located in New York City’s Lower East Side, where about 300 poor Jewish immigrant families received clothing, food, coal, and medical care. There was also a Talmud Torah and “Americanizing” classes. In 1908, after the Young Turk Revolution overthrew the Ottoman Empire regime, the Lower East Side saw an influx of Sephardic immigrants from Turkey, the Balkans, Greece and Syria, and the Sisterhood helped them as well.
It was around this time that Davis Menken began working with delinquent girls and women. In 1907 she helped found the Jewish Board of Guardians, which was responsible for helping Jewish youth during and after court-imposed probation. A year later, New York City magistrates asked her to form a committee to work with the probation department of the city’s newly established Women’s Night Court.