A friend of mine died this week, Lee Bender of Ardmore PA. He wasn’t just my friend. A Yom Kippur-sized crowd filled Congregation Beth Hillel-Beth El this morning. Everyone who spoke at the moving ceremony mentioned Lee’s extraordinarily deep and intense commitment to Israel. They were, of course, right, but I had a unique insight into that commitment that I would share with you today.
I don’t remember when I met Lee or how we began working on Israel-related causes together. I do remember that after Steve Crane published my Jewish peoples’-three-millennia-presence-in-Palestine-tracing book, we decided to do one on how the media skews the news to skrew the Jews, and that I really really needed a co-author. Lee more-than-enthusiastically took on the task. The three of us presented Pressing Israel: Media Bias Exposed From A-to-Z at the Jewish Book Council in New York, and Lee and I began developing a Powerpoint talk on the media’s (and world’s) loaded lexicon of anti-Israel poisoned pejoratives, loosely based on the book.
It was in garnering us opportunities to present this talk – no charge, just give us a table on which to stack a few books – that Lee’s twin passions for  convincing American Jews ourselves to stop using Jewish homeland-delegitimizing terms – “If You Forfeit the Language You Forfeit Our Heritage,” he put it – and  convincing us all to stand up for Jewish sovereignty in the entirety of our land of Israel, uniquely and intensely shone through.
I lost track long ago, but Lee said we gave that talk over the last few years maybe a hundred times (almost all of which it was Lee who arranged) – to synagogue men’s clubs and sisterhoods, student and youth groups, JCCs, Hadassah chapters, a couple big Christian groups, a cigar club (I remember that one, bourbon for refreshment rather than bagels), he got us ten minutes in front of the Trustees of Philadelphia’s Federation of Jewish Agencies, and elsewhere.
I would tell you about one of those talks, the one we gave in The House That Mort Built. A couple months before that talk, Eileen and I were among dinner attendees in New Jersey joyously celebrating the seventy-fifth anniversary of the wonderful group “Friends of Israel.” (Ok, their last name is “Gospel Ministry, Inc.,” but we’re on a first name basis, all’s well.) The National President of the Zionist Organization of America, America’s oldest and most ardent Jewish Zionist organization, of which Lee and I are long members, briefly sat down beside me and said that if they could work it out, they were going to turn Lee and me loose to do an excerpt of our talk at their upcoming National Convention (at which he, Mort Klein, one of my heroes, was up for a bitterly contested election). Stunned, I just said that if he did turn us loose, we would not disappoint him. We gave our talk, and though that was not necessarily the cause of Mort being reelected resoundingly, he told us on our way out that we had not disappointed.
There was a sequel to that talk. The founder of a West Coast foundation supporting Jewish causes was present and enabled Lee, Steve Crane and me to establish a non-profit 501c3 corp and our website, www.factsonisrael.com, where we have videos of our talks, this weekly part-time media watch, compendiums of dirty words pro-Israel folks should not say, on-line articles we’ve written, guest columns, even a donation button, etc. We invite you to go take a look, and should your own group have a meeting needing a program, Steve and I will try to continue Lee’s part.
A couple years ago, my family doctor – there still is such a thing – sent me to a specialist who ran all manner of tests. He read me out all the results, which I understood to the extent that some were outside the normal range by more than the margin of error. “Any questions?” “One. From here I’m going to the State Store to buy a bottle of bourbon. Should I get a fifth or a pint?” A couple years ago, Lee was definitively told “get a pint.” The prognosis was a few months. Lee, getting constant treatments, turned this into years. Until near the end, none of this seemed to us to be real. Lee arranged and we gave the talks – Lee with seeming full vigor; he engaged in sports, went on family trips, was active in ZOA and his congregation. In the end, nature caught up.
The ZOA, of which Lee had been co-President of its Greater Philadelphia District for the past many years, wrote a beautiful obituary and has named one of the awards to be presented at its gala on September 24 in Lee’s name.
Like Herzl, Lee, in his early fifties, was taken from us too soon. Like Dr. Weitzmann, Lee labored on well after physical strength had been exhausted. He was enabled to do this because he so clearly saw and was so moved by the great need for American Jews to appreciate that using terms like “Israeli occupation of the Palestinian West Bank and East Jerusalem beyond the 1967 borders” forfeits our heritage. Unlike so many American Jews, Lee saw The Promised Land.