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Jennie Schaff moves on up in the Farash building 

click to enlarge Jennie Schaff took over as CEO of the Farash Foundation at the start of the year. Behind her is a photo of Max and Marian Farash, who founded the charitable organization. - PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
  • PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
  • Jennie Schaff took over as CEO of the Farash Foundation at the start of the year. Behind her is a photo of Max and Marian Farash, who founded the charitable organization.
Two tiny figures in wheelchairs rest on a bookshelf in Jennie Schaff’s office.
They were a gift, given to her when she completed her doctorate in education at George Mason University years ago. But now, as she begins her tenure as the chief executive officer of one of the largest private charitable organizations in the region, the Farash Foundation, the figures are a reminder of how she got there.

“If you were to ask me what brought me to where I am today, I would say from the very beginning it was working with kids with disabilities,” said Schaff, 49.

That’s no understatement. Schaff began volunteering at Al Sigl Center and United Cerebral Palsy while in middle school. In college she studied physical therapy with the intent of working with children with severe disabilities.

When she got into the field, she was “blown away” by the assistive technologies available to youngsters, and frustrated by how few people knew how to use them. She enrolled at George Mason to focus on better ways to teach children with disabilities.

That eventually led her to Nazareth College, where she was a professor for 13 years and directed programs focused on inclusive and early childhood education. She also carved out a niche teaching her students how to use technology in classrooms.

“I loved the duality of being able to teach the teachers, who would then teach students,” Schaff said.

She spoke from her seat behind a circular table in her tidy office on the top floor of the Farash Place on East Avenue near Union Street. Three months earlier, her office was on the first floor of the building, where she was the chief executive of Jewish Family Services.

There, she oversaw the operation of a food pantry in Brighton as well as initiatives around mental health, parenting, and senior care.

At the Farash Foundation education is again near the top of her agenda.

The foundation was established in 1988 by real estate developer Max Farash and his wife, Marian. Tax returns for 2020, the last year for which records were publicly available, show that the foundation had $309 million in investments and gave out roughly $10 million in grants.

In accordance with the wishes of Farash, who immigrated to Rochester as a child from a Jewish village in what is now Macedonia and died in 2010 at the age of 95, half of the organization’s annual grants go to Jewish initiatives locally or globally. The other half goes to recipients in Monroe and Ontario counties.

The organization provides funding for arts and cultural programs and gave out $5.6 million in pandemic relief grants over the past year.

But education has been a key focus of the organization, too.

For example, the foundation’s signature education program, the First in Family scholarship, assists students who are the first in their family to attend college with expenses not covered by financial aid.

The organization also provided funding for last year’s launch of the Rochester Education Fellowship, a position independent of the foundation that was developed to study city public and charter schools and create a plan to enhance services to the students that attend them.

Daan Braveman, the chair of the Farash Foundation, said board members were drawn to Schaff because of her education background and her grounding in the Jewish community. Schaff replaced Holli Budd, who retired as chief executive officer at the end of 2021 after 10 years at the helm.

Braveman was Nazareth College’s president from 2005 through 2020 and his tenure overlapped with Schaff’s for most of her years there.

“She was, I think, one of the best professors in the school of ed,” Braveman said. “The students really enjoyed her and learned a lot from her, and her colleagues respected her.”
click to enlarge Jennie Schaff's background in education caught the attention of the Farash Foundation board. - PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
  • PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
  • Jennie Schaff's background in education caught the attention of the Farash Foundation board.
There’s a well-known concept in Judaism called tikkun olam, which translated from Hebrew means “world repair.” Many Jews interpret tikkun olam as an individual responsibility to make the world a kinder and more just place. The phrase underlies the commitment many Jewish organizations and people, including Schaff, have to social justice and reform.

Schaff said her mother modeled the concept for her and ingrained in her children “that we need to find somewhere to volunteer or to do good in this world in conjunction with whatever else we wanted to do.”

“Growing up, that was hugely important,” Schaff said. “I believe wholeheartedly that because this was ingrained in me as a child it became super important to me as an adult, and it’s why I’ve done a lot of work throughout my adult life with youth and trying to engage youth in social activism and volunteerism and civic engagement.”

Schaff, a married mother of three children and two step-children, took the helm of the Farash Foundation with a 10-year strategic plan developed by her predecessor and the board in hand. She and other foundation officials are now working to better define its priorities, a process she hopes will bring the organization more bang for its buck and make clearer to grantseekers the types of programs it aims to fund.

Among them is an initiative meant to help more teachers, particularly teachers of color, prepare for a career in education, with an emphasis on teaching in the city. As part of those efforts, the foundation recently invited proposals for a new round of grants, this time stressing teacher retention.

“Now is an opportunity for the foundation to look inward and try to determine where it is that we can be either more specific or target our dollars,” Schaff said.

Jeremy Moule is CITY's news editor. He can be reached at jmoule@rochester-citynews.com.

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