Chem teacher and new Science Department Chair fell for Jewish religion

By Lucy Fried, Features Editor

Coming into a school that has seen six science teachers depart in the last five years, new department chair Mr. Pavel Lieb is adamant that Shalhevet’s Science team be given the tools needed to do their best work. This year, the department includes him and Dr. Elizabeth Basheer, who is also new to Shalhevet.

“It’s difficult to hypothesize what the troubles might have been in the past,” said Mr. Lieb, who is teaching Chemistry and AP Chemistry this year. “One of my biggest priorities is to support Science department staff,  and that will come through much more communication between teachers.

“What’s really important is to look forward and try to identify what teachers need and what students need and just work towards providing really meaningful learning experiences in the classroom,” he said, “This should be the factor that contributes to longevity and long term success of the program.”

Originally from Moscow, Russia, Mr. Lieb and his family immigrated to the United States 25 years ago after the collapse of the Soviet Union. He remembers anti-semitism being a prominent part of childhood there.

For example, he experienced  being singled out as one of the few Jewish children in school.  

“Very few Russian Soviet Jews practiced [Judaism] because it wasn’t really legal,” said Mr. Lieb, who will be teaching Chemistry and AP Chemistry this year.  But “on the roster at school, everyone’s names were written. Next to my name it would say ‘Jewish,’ so me and two other Jews in class, we always knew we were Jews, even if we didn’t practice any traditions.”

Despite having a distinct external identity as a Jew in Russia, Mr. Lieb was raised in a non-practicing family. He became interested in Judaism in his early teens, when he began educating himself on religion and Zionism, later deciding to take on an Orthodox lifestyle.  

“It just felt so incredible to be part of this people that I kind of absorbed it a lot,” he said. “There were all these other people who were just like me.”

Although he does not consider himself Orthodox now, he said that he is “forever deeply connected” to the religious identity that he created.

Before coming to Shalhevet, Mr. Lieb taught for 14 years, tutoring for the first two and the next 10 teaching at Milken.  After that he taught for two years teaching at the Wildwood School in West L.A.

He received his Bachelor’s degree in Molecular Biology from Cal State Northridge after attending Washington University in St. Louis for two years. He then went on to obtain a Master’s degree, also at Northridge, in education.

Mr. Lieb’s professional science background began his freshman year of college, when he accepted a work-study position in a human genome project lab. After receiving his undergraduate degree, he was offered a job doing HIV genotyping in a clinical lab. Following this, he was given a position at Cal State Northridge running their DNA sequencing lab before being invited to teach at Milken.

At Shalhevet, he wants students to find their individual passions in science, and hopes to add science classes that are more unique and based on students’ interests.

“We’re curious to see what other course offerings we might bring into the scope,” he said. “Maybe something along the lines of a bioethics course or literature in science – something that could address as many students’ passions as possible.

“The most important thing is for all of us in the science department to start generating meaningful experiences for our students,” he added. “I really want every time a Shalhevet student walks into a science class, I want them to walk out with a sense of accomplishment and a sense of fulfillment,” he said.

In order to engage students, Mr. Lieb wishes to offer opportunities for science projects outside of the classroom, or teacher mentorship.

“If a student identifies a specific interest of curiosity, we will try to generate some sort of mentorship relationship that they can actually start exploring it,” he said.