Bender was born to a Jewish family in The Bronx, New York, and grew up in New Jersey, where his father was a college history professor and his mother was a kindergarten teacher. He described his hometown of Cherry Hill as "all-white and anti-Semitic". In high school, he decided to pursue a career as a civil engineer. His grandfather had been a civil engineer and he heard there were good jobs available in the field. He is a graduate of The University of Maine, Class of 1979, majoring in Civil Engineering.
While attending U-Maine, Bender acquired a passion for dance. After graduating, Bender pursued dancing and was awarded a scholarship to the Louis Falco dance troupe. He worked as a dancer for some time before a series of injuries ended his dance career.