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From Haiti To ‘Today’ Show

From Haiti To ‘Today’ Show

Jenna Wolfe has scaled a 2,000-foot-high tower, scuba dived with handicapped children. Next week she emcees The Jewish Week gala.

Jenna Wolfe, national correspondent for NBC’s “Today” and co-anchor of the show’s Sunday edition, will emcee The Jewish Week’s Gala dinner on Nov. 29 at Sotheby’s, honoring David Brooks and Ruth Gruber with the paper’s first Excellence in Journalism awards.

Born in Jamaica, Wolfe, 37, moved to Haiti with her family (her father ran a leather manufacturing company there) when she was 5, then settled in the U.S. in 1989, when she was a teenager and conditions in Haiti had worsened. Outgoing and affable, she has been a broadcast journalist since her college days, first in sports and for the last four years as a correspondent for “Today,” known for her daredevil feature reports.

She stopped by the offices of The Jewish Week the other day to discuss her career and connections to the Jewish community.

Jewish Week: Was it difficult living a Jewish life in Haiti?

Jenna Wolfe: My main connection was attending Camp Ramah in the summers, and for my bat mitzvah, the cantor of my grandparents’ synagogue in upstate New York made a cassette tape of my Haftorah for me, and that’s how I learned it.

Were you motivated to study?

Well, it was very hot in Haiti, and my parents’ room had an air conditioner. My father told me I could prepare the Haftorah in their room, so I would have davened all day just to be in that air-conditioned room.

Were you always interested in a broadcasting career?

As a child I loved to perform, I loved to be on stage, I loved to entertain, so when I got to college [SUNY-Binghamton] I turned that passion into journalism, interning for the local affiliate there. I graduated and applied for a news reporter position. The only opening was in sports so I grabbed and, like I always do, I dove in head first, remaining in sports for 12 years before joining NBC News.

How would you describe your on-air style.

I’d say it’s honest. I am the same person off air that I am on air. Some people like that, some people don’t. But the peaks and valleys are always better than middle of the road. I enjoy talking to people, telling their stories. I’ve been described as fearless and funny with a splash of wit.

In your current post you do some out-of-the-box features. What’s that like?

I'm not a hard-news reporter, and many of the features I do are conceptual, fun stories, which doesn’t mean they’re not hard to do. I recently did a report on attending flight attendant school in Dallas. I had to evacuate planes, jump down chutes, fall into freezing cold waters and then work my return flight back to New York as a flight attendant … beverage service, trash service. … It was fun, but it was work as well. From the story pitch, to the producing, to the interviewing, reporting, writing, editing and airing, it’s a long but fulfilling process.

Do you come up with your own story ideas?

It’s a shared process. I initiate some, my producer does some, but we’ll take ideas from anyone. There’s no formula to what makes a good story. I’ve driven the track of the Indy 500 with Mario Andretti, flown with the Blue Angels, scaled a 2,000-foot-high tower in Toronto, scuba dived with paraplegic kids, you name it. I get to breathe the story.

Any story you’ve refused to do?

Once, when I was asked to swim at 5 a.m. in late October from Battery Park to the Statue of Liberty, I said “no way.” But otherwise I’m pretty game.

What was the most memorable feature you’ve done?

About 10 days after the earthquake in Haiti [2010] I went down there, and I tried to find my nanny from when I was growing up. I hadn’t seen her in 22 years. And we went from town to town with no luck, but on the last day I found her and we just cried. It was beautiful, and it was the most real, the most emotional and the most poignant story I’ve ever done.

Your thoughts on emceeing The Jewish Week Gala?

I’m excited about it. In the last several years I have re-embraced a slice of Judaism, going to the occasional Shabbat dinner in the city, and spending more time with my more religious friends. And to say my parents are thrilled that I’m doing this event would be an understatement. n

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