Update: A previous version of this article stated that Bender belonged to the American Jewish Committee, rather than the American Jewish Congress.
Lee Bender, who served as president of the Greater Philadelphia Zionist Organization of America from 2012 to 2019, died on Sept. 10 at the age of 56 after a long illness.
Bender, a native of New York, had lived in Philadelphia since 1990 with his wife, Jane. They met in a Northern Virginia Jewish softball league in 1989, where Jane Bender remembers a particularly athletic diving catch by her future husband. They began dating within a week, were engaged within eight months, and were married in another seven months after that. Jane Bender was enamored of his “110%” commitment to whatever he did, and by his musical tastes; he had an ear for Mozart as well for the Grateful Dead.
“It was beshert,” she said.
Bender was a graduate of Cornell University, an accomplishment he took pride in. His grandfather, a Russian immigrant, was a member of the class of 1926; his father, a member of the class of 1958. Bender, a brother of Sigma Phi Epsilon, rowed crew at Cornell, and graduated in 1984. His eldest son, too, is a graduate of the New York State school.
In Philadelphia, he began as an assistant district attorney, and later left for private practice, working as a litigation attorney at Joseph Chaiken & Associates.
His involvement with the Jewish community of Philadelphia was multifaceted. Bender, an ardent Zionist, was a member of the local chapter of the American Jewish Congress before joining the local Zionist Organization of America. Steve Feldman, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia ZOA, got to know Bender when he was still at the AJC. Feldman, who was a reporter at the Jewish Exponent at the time, was impressed with Bender’s work ethic and his commitment to furthering the cause of Israel.
When they began to work together at the ZOA, Feldman said he was privileged to be able to see Bender’s determination up close. The two talked nearly every day for years, and Feldman said he came to realize that Bender had “a really good soul.”
“He really was the ideal lay leader,” Feldman said.
Feldman was not the only one impressed with Bender’s commitment to Israel.
Arlene Fickler, a lawyer at Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis and the current board chair of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, met Bender when she was chair of Federation’s Israel advocacy committee. Bender was on the committee — a position he valued deeply, along with his work with the JCRC — and Fickler was impressed by his passion and sensitivity.
“Lee was an eloquent, articulate, thoughtful spokesman for the view that the ZOA holds and that he personally held, in terms of how we, as American Jews, best advocate for Israel,” she said. “I truly came to respect both the strength of his views and yet his willingness, always, to engage in civil, thoughtful conversation with other members of the committee who didn’t necessarily share his views.”
Both Jane Bender and Feldman echoed this sentiment, praising Bender’s ability to have civil relationships with those he disagreed with.
Aside from his work with the ZOA and Jewish Federation, Bender served as a member of the Lower Merion Civil Service Commission for 18 years, and as co-president of Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El’s Men’s Club.
Bender was a prolific writer, often blogging for The Jerusalem Post and The Times of Israel. He co-wrote a book, Pressing Israel: Media Bias Exposed from A-to-Z, with Jerome R. Verlin.
Bender is survived by his wife, Jane Green Bender; his sons, Justin and Noah; his siblings, Evan Bender and Sharon Bender (Andrew Feldmann); his sister-in-law, Marci Green; and his mother and father-in-law, Melvin and Greta Green.
The funeral for Bender, which was held at Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El on Sept. 13, was standing room only. The parking lot was full a half-hour before the service began, and a long line of attendees stretched outside the doors of the Wynnewood building waiting to get in.
Rabbi Neil S. Cooper led the ceremony, allowing time for a handful of speakers before the family traveled to New York for the burial. Neighborhood friends, ZOA associates, college buddies and Jewish communal leaders listened as multiple speakers paid tribute to Bender’s kindness and openness to people who held other points of view. As they told it, he was always interested in hearing what people with differing opinions had to say, a product of his inherent intellectual curiosity.
That same curiosity led him to classes with Naphtali Perlberger, who recalled from the bima, voice cracking, that Bender came to class even when he was at his sickest.
Cooper marveled that Bender was at the synagogue “all the time” when he was also everywhere else “all the time.” That energy, as well as his devotion to his wife and their two sons, was remarked upon by more than one speaker.
Several of the speakers quoted lyrics from the Grateful Dead, and there was an emotional sing-along of the Cornell school song, led by one of Bender’s fraternity brothers.
At its annual gala on Sept. 24, the ZOA will give out its first Lee Bender Defender of Israel Award.
Additional reporting by Liz Spikol.