Lee Gruen

By Ellen Braunstein, Special to Chicago Jewish News

Ever since Gideon Lichterman could walk, you could count on him having a soccer ball at his feet.  At five, he played in a house recreational league and at seven, he began the more competitive travel soccer.

Now at 15, he’s living his dream to compete internationally among Jewish peers. He is playing soccer in the inaugural International Maccabi Youth Games (July 23-August 1) in Israel. He represents Chicago and the USA team in an event that will combine tournament-style competition with touring and educational opportunities.

For the first time, young athletes, born between 2002 and 2004, will compete and experience Israel alongside their Jewish teen counterparts from around the world including  Australia, Canada, Great Britain, Israel, South Africa.

Sports offered for male and female athletes include baseball, softball, basketball, soccer, rugby and volleyball. A delegation of 200 athletes, volunteers, trainers, coaches and medical staff represent Team USA. Athletes pay out of pocket or fundraise for the trip.

Gideon’s father John Lichterman of River Forest says that his son “is very excited for the opportunity. He has a passion for Israel and sports. He enjoys the physicality, the skills and the teamwork.” He also stays Jewishly involved as a camp counselor at Oak Park Temple and as a teaching assistant in the religious education program.

For Team USA, Gideon is joined by Coach Lee Gruen, founder of Chai Athletics, a Jewish sports coaching community program in Chicago. He will serve as head coach for one of the youth men’s basketball teams.

Maccabi USA is an organization, based in Philadelphia that builds Jewish pride through sports, generating the emotional intensity, high ideals and powerful camaraderie of competition, according to communications director Dakota Marine of the Maccabi USA Organizing Committee. The organization “connects athletes, volunteers and supporters with the global Jewish community.  Our athletic, educational and cultural experience builds Jewish identity, perpetuates Jewish continuity worldwide and strengthens support for the State of Israel.”

Every four years, Maccabi holds a competition for adult athletes. The summer of 2017, the Maccabi Games brought together 10,000 athletes and 20,000 fans, making it the third-largest international sporting event in the world. The athletes competed on behalf of 85 countries in 45 sports. In between the four year cycle there are European and South American games. If the youth games happen again it will probably be in 2021, Marine said.

Gruen, 30, is getting his play books ready for the basketball team and admiring his new apparel. He meets the team at a training camp in New Jersey, two days before they leave for Israel. “It’s exciting the things they’ve put together. It’s a new experience like no other,” said Gruen, who has been to Israel five times, once through Birthright and again as a Birthright staffer.

He formed his coaching organization because, he said, there was no organization in Chicago or in the country solely dedicated to athletics in the Jewish community.

He has coached Ida Crown Jewish Academy sophomore and varsity basketball teams and this summer he is contracted to coach at JCC day camps in Lakeview and Northbrook. He has also coordinated sports and leagues out of the Rogers Park JCC and worked for Camp Young Judaea Midwest.

Gruen is a communication major from Loyola University and just received his master’s of arts in Jewish professional studies at Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership.

“I love coaching the kids and teaching, three years old through high school. Maybe they are not going to be NBA players, but they are there because they love the sport.”

Of the Maccabi games, he said “it’s a great way for kids to grow as adults and leaders.”

For more information about the Maccabi games, visit


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