Deep-Seated Sense of Justice

Business success enables Marvin Lender to support the causes that matter to him most. And few matter more than social justice — the focus of a new Syracuse University center bearing the Lender name.

It’s a cause that goes back to Lender’s youth — and to his days at Maxwell.

By Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers

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Marvin and Helaine Lender

As a child in the 1940s and ’50s, Marvin Lender worked every day in his family’s bagel bakery, located in a garage behind their house in New Haven, Connecticut. His father, Harry, had emigrated from Poland in 1927 and built the business from the ground up in the midst of the Great Depression, working through the nights to deliver daily fresh bagels to the local Jewish community. Marvin, the youngest of six children, helped out after school and on weekends and holidays. His father’s work ethic made a big impression, as did his spirit of giving back.

“On Thanksgiving, my father used to send me out in the morning at five o’clock with bagels for every nonprofit in the greater New Haven area,” he recalls. “That’s what he did because he cared about people, and he appreciated what he had. That’s what I learned, that’s what I taught my children, and I hope my grandchildren will have that same feeling.”

The life path of Lender shows how he took those lessons to heart. A 1963 graduate of the Maxwell School with a degree in political science, Marvin, along with his brothers, made Lender a household name as they grew Lender’s Bagel Bakery from a backyard business into the world’s biggest bagel producer. They sold the company in 1984 and ever since Marvin and his wife, Helaine (a member of Syracuse University’s Class of ’65), have devoted themselves to philanthropy and advocacy — in particular, supporting initiatives that counter prejudice and discrimination against ethnic, religious, and racial groups.

“We’ve spent the lion’s share of this part of our life doing community work,” he says. “We have funded projects and organizations that are trying to help people understand one another and treat each other in more positive ways than what we’ve experienced over the years and are experiencing now.”

The latest incarnation of that work is the Lender Center for Social Justice at Syracuse University, officially launched in September and housed in the School of Education. Established with a $5-million gift from the Lenders, it will connect faculty and students from across the University for interdisciplinary research on issues of social justice, equity, and inclusion.

"The Lender Center is not about how to make peace after a horrible thing happens in the community. This is about how do you prevent it?"
Marvin Lender

The goal of the center, Lender says, is to be proactive rather than reactive — focusing not on conflict resolution but rather on getting to the root of why conflicts happen in the first place. “The Lender Center is not about the left and the right and how to bring them together and make peace after a horrible thing happens in the community,” says Lender, who characterizes himself as a centrist and is a registered independent. “This is about how do you prevent it? What causes people to hate one another based on skin color or religion or gender or whatever it might be? Until you can answer the question, you’re not going to be able to make any progress.”

Regardless of academic or professional field, Lender says, everyone contends with issues of prejudice and discrimination. At the Lender Center, “We’re bringing like-minded people together who want a place and an opportunity to discuss these issues,” he says. “We can provide that safe haven.”

While managed by the School of Education, the Lender Center is designed to tap and serve shared interests in social justice from across the University. It is co-directed by Marcelle Haddix, of the reading and language arts department in the School of Education, and Kendall Phillips, a professor of communication and rhetorical studies in the College of Visual and Performing Arts. Its advisory board includes faculty members in the cultural foundations of education, Native American and indigenous studies, and architecture.

Also on the board is Anne Mosher, an associate professor of geography and chair of Maxwell’s Citizenship and Civic Engagement (CCE) Program. She describes the Lender Center as a flexible platform for research collaboration across all disciplines on a broad range of matters seen as fitting the rubric of “social justice.”

“The Lenders’ idea is timely and important,” Mosher says. “Social justice concerns seep into every aspect of society and politics, and it’s crucial that we bring an interdisciplinary approach to research on this issue.” That said, she foresees an especially meaningful role for Maxwell — projects involving faculty members and students across the spectrum of the School’s emphases. “Social justice, interdisciplinarity, and collaboration are elemental to our Maxwell DNA,” she says. “It’s the reason I wanted to be involved.”

Each year, the center will appoint a Lender faculty fellow and five student fellows who will collaborate on a two-year project researching a social issue and proposing strategies and concrete steps toward addressing it. This winter, the center is reviewing applications for its inaugural Lender faculty fellowship, starting in the fall of 2019. Each faculty fellow will receive two years of research support, a summer stipend, and funding for a symposium to share and discuss the findings of the project.

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Marvin and Helaine Lender at the opening of the Lender Center in September, with center co-directors Marcelle Haddix (left), chair of reading and language arts in Syracuse University’s School of Education, and Kendall Phillips (right), professor of communication and rhetorical studies in the College of Visual and Performing Arts.

The work of promoting social justice is particularly urgent in this era in the United States, with its marked partisanship and hostility toward ethnic and racial groups, says Lender. In his view, the country has strayed from its historic commitment to inclusion and equality.

“Since the end of the second world war, I really believe that [Americans] have had a positive impact on the world,” he says. “Perfect, no, but positive. And that came because the United States was united. This country is made up of lots of different kinds of people, but there always seemed to be something that ran across all ethnic lines, all religious lines, that at the end of the day brought everyone together. And I am sorry to say that in the last 10 years, I don’t see it. We’re going in a different direction now, and I am super-concerned about when we are going to get back on track.”

Lender’s commitment to social justice in many ways traces back to his childhood. “It’s where you come from that makes you who you are,” he says. “I think I am a very good example of that.” Anticipating the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party that would soon engulf eastern Europe, his parents and three oldest siblings left Poland in the late 1920s to escape virulent anti-Semitism. Marvin was born in 1941 and grew up in the postwar era, but “the Holocaust was talked about all the time,” he says. “We lost lots of family — aunts and uncles and grandparents who never came here.”

Along with this awareness of Holocaust history, Lender went through school amidst the racial strife of the civil rights era, which made an indelible mark on him. The first in his family to attend a four-year college, he joined Syracuse’s freshman class in 1959 and received an eye-opening education on political and social issues through his studies at Maxwell. In addition to completing his political science major, Lender took a cross-section of Maxwell courses, and one legendary professor stands out in his mind: constitutional law scholar Michael Sawyer.

“He was indirectly a mentor to me, because I admired not just the things he said but the way he acted,” Lender recalls. “He had a quality that was quite unusual. He cared about the students big-time, but he also cared about the United States. He cared about the system, and he taught accordingly. He educated all of us in a way that we could be activists.”

Lender draws a direct line from this civic education to his engagement with social issues. “Maxwell opened my eyes to the world around me — how it actually works and what role you can play in contributing to it, whether you are directly involved in politics or you’re an advocate of a particular philosophy or issue,” he says. “I can tell you that the thinking behind the Lender Center in terms of social justice, those seeds were planted at Maxwell, at Syracuse University.”

In the mid-1980s, when the Lender family sold the bagel business, Marvin and Helaine Lender decided that it was, in his words, “payback time” — an opportunity to devote themselves to giving back to the community. Among the organizations and institutions they have supported are Yale New Haven Hospital, where he has been a board member for more than 30 years, and Syracuse University, where he serves as a life trustee. The Lenders have been deeply involved in the Jewish community, both domestically and internationally. Marvin was national chairman of the United Jewish Appeal in the early 1990s and ran fund-raising campaigns that helped Soviet and Ethiopian Jews resettle in Israel and America.

"Michael Sawyer cared about the system, and he taught accordingly. He educated all of us in a way that we could be activists. "
Marvin Lender

Closer to home, through the Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven, Lender co-founded the Holocaust Education/Prejudice Reduction Program, which in many ways stirred the thinking behind the Lender Center for Social Justice at the University. The Holocaust educational program was directed at middle school and high school teachers, providing them with classroom tools and lessons for reducing prejudice. Over 25 years, the program trained about 2,000 teachers, who in turn reached tens of thousands of students.

“The Holocaust was an experience not just for Jewish people, but for the world,” says Lender. “It’s the greatest example of man’s inhumanity to man. Six million Jews were killed, and so were 4 million non-Jews. So how does that happen, and how do you avoid that? That was the basis of the program, and it was very successful.”

Through SU’s Lender Center for Social Justice, Lender hopes to build on that model by exploring difficult questions about the roots of hatred and discrimination, and then seeking avenues to bring people together.

Lender acknowledges that when it comes to addressing such deep-seated issues of human relations, there’s no such thing as a quick fix. Founding the Lender Center for Social Justice is “a long-term commitment,” he says. “I have no illusions that once you begin to uncover these things the resolution is going to be short-term. You can’t take someone who grew up in an environment hating a particular group of people and expect that to change overnight. But not to try to change it is irresponsible.”

Over time, he envisions that the work of Lender fellows will build on projects that came before. Faculty members and students completing projects at the center will spread their experiences and lessons as they fan out in diverse fields and professions. As with the Holocaust Education/Prejudice Reduction Program, which ultimately reached thousands of students, Lender believes the impact of the Lender Center will grow steadily — within the University and beyond.

“What I hope to see is that as this evolves — and it’s not going to happen overnight — we will create a model for other universities and other places who want to deal with these issues,” he says. “We’re both very optimistic, as are our children. We have three adult children and five grandchildren, all of whom feel the same way that we do about social issues. We think the Lender Center, over an extended period of time, can make a difference.


The Bagel Boom

How Lender’s Bagels became a household name.

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Growing Business. In 1969, with their first customized delivery truck (and one very large bagel), Lender brothers Murray, Marvin, and Sam (center to far right)

Given the ubiquity of bagels today, it’s hard to imagine that when Marvin Lender graduated from SU in 1963 and joined his brothers in running the family bakery (his father had passed away when he was a sophomore), there were only about 40 bagel bakeries around the country. Bagels were still an ethnic food known mostly to immigrants. At the time, Lender’s Bagel Bakery was still based in the garage in New Haven, with seven employees making bagels by hand.

The brothers, though, saw an opportunity to introduce bagels outside the Jewish community, and they succeeded beyond all expectations. One of the keys to expanding the market was developing methods for freezing and packaging their products so they wouldn’t be limited by the very short shelf life of a fresh bagel.

With Marvin focused on operations and his brother, Murray, on marketing, the Lenders grew the business from annual revenues of about $300,000 to $70 million over the course of 20 years. By the time Kraft bought the company in 1984, Lender’s bagels were in supermarkets everywhere in the country. Lender asks, “Where else could that happen but America?” — JPR

This article appeared in the winter 2019 print edition of Maxwell Perspective © Maxwell School of Syracuse University. To request a copy, e-mail dlcooke@maxwell.syr.edu.