J.B. Pritzker, billionaire heir to Hyatt Hotels fortune, Democrat running for governor, Jewish, says life is about what “you do to make lives better.”

Married “for 24 years to a terrific woman. I actually met her on Capitol Hill. We were both working for United States senators.”

Raised in California while parents helped build the family business.

So much of my upbringing was focused on issues around . . . religious principles like social justice and economic justice.”

There was no synagogue nearby, so his parents and other families helped build one.

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“They were great people, and, unfortunately, my father, when he was 39 . . . was playing tennis and died of a heart attack. My mother unfortunately was there, and he died in her arms.

“I think that really devastated her . . . She became an alcoholic. . . . She suffered . . . fought valiantly . . . I was very young when that started, 8, 9 years old, and unfortunately her life ended when I was 17 and when she was 49.

“My faith wasn’t shaken” by the deaths. “There’s always that question that exists I think when you contemplate the world: ‘If God exists, then why all the suffering?’ . . . That question is almost the basis for faith. And if you can get past that question, then I think you retain your faith.”

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Growing up, “we were observant mostly on holidays.”

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“My family ended up in the United States because my great-grandfather was persecuted . . . He and his father were chased down and, in fact, had to hide from . . . the violent mobs that were coming after Jews in a pogrom in the Ukraine.

“Had the United States not let my family in, they would have died.”

At 10, his great-grandfather was in Chicago selling newspapers “on a street corner.” He attended CPS, learned English and ended up going to college.

Those things stick with me about who my family is and what our religion is.”

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“It’s hard to grow up, I think, as a Reform Jew going to Sunday school as we did . . . and not be exposed to the Holocaust.” It was tough to understand “why would people do this.”

Some of his philanthropy has involved the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie.

Growing up, “I wasn’t ever pointed at and called a dirty name . . . but . . . I knew that people did things under their breath.”

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Pritzker’s wife converted to Judaism. When she was younger, her father took her “to different houses of worship,” so she “had a much better survey course than I did in religion.”

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Does faith play a role in Pritzker’s politics?

“I think we’re all a product of not only our upbringing but our faith . . . It’s hard to separate what your parents are teaching you . . . what your pastor or your rabbi is saying.”

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“It’s my belief that we have to maintain a very strong wall between church and state.”

Still, religion is “a very good thing” on the whole. “The 10 Commandments are maybe the most important sets of laws that exist in the world.”

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Is there a God?

“I think there is. And I say ‘I think’ because I think, when you’re Jewish, you’re always questioning it. It really is a process, I think, throughout your life of just contemplating all of the really hard questions, and there are moments when your faith has to overcome maybe logic.”

Not sure about whether there’s an afterlife — but hopes so.

“I’m 52 years old, and, so, 35 years ago, I lost my mom . . . Even today, it feels like there’s someone thinking of me or, I don’t know if . . . watching is the right word, but concerned that I carry out the values that they taught me.”

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He prays. Often, “the moments in which I do the deepest praying are . . . the moments that I’m in the deepest crisis.”

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Helping the needy is part of being governor, but “the job is multifaceted.”

Won’t “analyze” Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner’s “morality.” But, referring to his budget battle with Democratic Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan that’s cost nonprofits and social programs dearly, points to Rauner, his potential opponent in the general election, and says, “I would say that the effect of his actions has caused so much devastation, and it’s hard for me to understand how he wakes up every day and says this is OK.”

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With great wealth, is there great responsibility?

The obligation is to pay it forward . . . to make sure that you’re making the world a better place.”

 

Face to Faith appears Sundays in the Chicago Sun-Times with an accompanying audio podcast, with additional content, available at chicago.suntimes.com and on iTunes and Google Play.

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