09.28.11

David Gregory Finds Religion

The ‘Meet the Press’ host is immersed in a midlife study of Judaism. On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, he tells Lauren Ashburn how it’s changed his life—and how he celebrates the Jewish holidays.

For NBC’s David Gregory, if it’s Sunday, it’s Meet the Press. If it’s Friday night, it’s Shabbat with his wife and three young children.

The 6-foot 5-inch, prematurely gray-haired television host, who spars weekly with the nation’s top politicians, has learned how to leave his boxing gloves at the front door. “We have a great ritual…of lighting the candles and saying our blessings and talking about what we’re thankful for this week,” he says.

It wasn’t always this way. His wife, Beth Wilkinson, whom he met while covering Timothy McVeigh’s Oklahoma City bombing trial, is an attorney and former general counsel for Fannie Mae. She is not Jewish. But since their marriage in 2000, she has encouraged Gregory to understand more about Judaism. “She had a lot of questions about faith, and I didn’t feel like I knew enough to field some of those questions,” he says.

As one might expect of a hard-charging correspondent, Gregory resolved to find answers to her questions. And what he found along the way was a deeper understanding of who he was and a desire to continue to educate his wife, and ultimately children, about his faith. It’s a side of him that has been visible only to his family and close friends.

“It’s endearing and admirable the way he wants his children to be aware of his faith and celebrate it,” says longtime Meet the Press Executive Producer Betsy Fischer. “I hear him getting very excited about planning religious events.”

Holidays like Rosh Hashanah, which begins Wednesday night, are a big deal in the Gregory household. Family and friends have joined them around the table in their northwest Washington home not just at this time of year, which marks the start of the Jewish New Year, but also to celebrate Passover. The influence of Gregory’s father, a Broadway producer, could be part of what drives him to bring history to life. “I prepare a big seder where we do the costumes and a script and basically tell the story of the Exodus,” Gregory says. After all, this is the same person who has been known to cut a rug on the Today show.

Gregory was raised Jewish by his father and non-Jewish mother, so he has firsthand experience with growing up in a mixed religious marriage. When his wife decided not to convert but agreed to help educate their children, he knew he had to step up his game. “We are committed to raising our children as Jews,” he says. “I knew that it had to start with me at a greater level, at a deeper level, if it was going to be a meaningful example to them.”

Instead of going it alone, Gregory began weekly meetings several years ago with Erica Brown, the scholar in residence at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. He brings the same kind of intensity to the task that he does preparing for his Sunday show.

Brown, who has written several books, including Spiritual Boredom: Rediscovering the Wonder of Judaism, and Inspired Jewish Leadership, says she feels “honored” to be able to study with Gregory.

The topics are all-inclusive, he says: “We study the Bible; we study other philosophical and spiritual texts. We study the concept of peoplehood, ritual, and all aspects of faith and practice.”

'I prepare a big seder where we do the costumes and a script and basically tell the story of the Exodus.'

For Gregory, accustomed to working around the clock for NBC News as a Dateline and White House correspondent in the George W. Bush years, and now as host of Meet the Press, finding time in the daily grind can be tough. “I just make the time,” he says. “It’s something that’s important to me. There are some times when it feels like it’s too much to include, but when I do it I always feel thankful that I did…I’ve built up a discipline about doing that.”

When not working, or manning the fort at home with his twins in first grade and his third grader while his wife is in court, Gregory studies with friends. “I have a group of guys—other journalists—that I study with less frequently,” he says. “We do it at my house or somebody’s office.” (He declined to reveal the identities of his fellow acolytes.)

A deeper understanding of Judaism isn’t the only positive outcome of his study. It seems there’s an ancillary benefit in a business populated by egomaniacs: It makes him nicer. “Professionally [it] helps me to be a better colleague, a better journalist, to work with more compassion and empathy,” Gregory says. And it helps him to deflect some of the scrutiny that comes with the job. “I realize that has its place, but there are more important things. It gives me a sense of perspective, I think.”

Fischer, who has worked with Gregory since his debut as host a few months after the 2008 death of Tim Russert, says the sense of purpose Gregory derives from his religion is visible in the Washington newsroom. “He is a very caring and loyal person,” she says. “He’s always willing to talk to people, help people better themselves—always wanting people to succeed.”

As for critics who might question whether his beliefs influence his role as a journalist, Gregory says: “I’ve covered Israel just as I cover other politics.”

Gregory has committed not just to exposing his children to Judaism, but to making it a part of the air they breathe—something he learned from the chief rabbi of England’s United Hebrew Congregation. That includes saying the Sh’ma Yisrael prayer with them before bed.

“Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says you can’t command your children to be Jews. You have to live it,” he says.