September 21, 2018

Singer Tony Orlando, longtime friend of Israel, to receive Chabad’s Voice of Courage Award

Tony Orlando is not Jewish. Not even a little. 

So why, then, is the half-Greek, half-Puerto Rican Christian who rose to prominence in the 1970s with the group Tony Orlando and Dawn — producing a string of smash hits like “Knock Three Times,” “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree” and “He Don’t Love You (Like I Love You)” — receiving the inaugural Voice of Courage Award from Chabad of the Conejo at a special evening headlined by Israeli performer Dudu Fisher on June 10?

The answer has a lot to do with his support for Israel and the families of the three teens whose kidnappings and murders last year sparked a war in Gaza. But it starts long ago in New York City with his father.

“My father spoke perfect Yiddish,” the 71-year-old Orlando (born Michael Anthony Orlando Cassavitis) said during a recent phone interview from his home in Branson, Mo. “My father was Greek — my father, Leo. But I never called him Leo. I called him Leibel all my life.”  

Leo Cassavitis was a furrier, and the garment business was so heavily Jewish that his son remembers going to work and hearing people call out, “Leibel, is that your son?” His dad explained that Leibel was the Yiddish version of Leo, and the name stuck.

The family’s ties to the Jewish faith grew with Cassavitis’ second marriage.

“He married a nice Jewish girl from Brooklyn and stayed married to her for 40 years,” Orlando said. 

When Orlando’s younger half-brother from that marriage, David, who now plays keyboards in his band, had a bar mitzvah, it was a great source of joy for their father. 

“When my brother got bar mitzvahed and my father received an aliyah … it was a higher honor to him than anything you could have ever done for him,” Orlando said. 

Although Cassavitis never converted, he remained fond of Judaism until the day he died. 

It was from this beginning that Orlando’s first feelings for Judaism and Israel were forged. They were only strengthened when he became a more devout Christian later in life.

“The first anti-Semitic act I ever read about in my lifetime was the Crucifixion, because, let’s face it, on the top of that cross it said, ‘The King of the Jews,’ so the audience saw a Jew being put up on that cross,” Orlando said. “Every single Christian, in my opinion, who commits an anti-Semitic act or word puts another nail in the hands of the man on that cross.” 

Orlando’s Christian faith brought him into contact with others in Branson who share his strong support for Israel and the Jewish people, including Sherry Herschend, of the Dollywood and Silver Dollar City theme parks. 

“She has donated I don’t even know how many millions of dollars to Israel,” Orlando said of Herschend, who took him on a life-changing trip to Israel. “She took me through every city … north, south, east and west.”

While in Israel last summer on a pilgrimage with his wife and daughter, Orlando said he was moved by the story of the three Israeli teens who were kidnapped from the Nof Ayalon settlement and later found murdered. 

“People were constantly asking me to go to the families and visit them,” said Orlando, who was hesitant at first. “I said, ‘I don’t even know where to go. … Finally I got in touch with some of the authorities there, in government, and they said, ‘Please do this.’ ”  

A government car picked Orlando up at his hotel and took him to the home of one of the families. It turned out the parents knew his music well and were happy to see him. 

Orlando said the message he delivered was: “I couldn’t sit here anymore and watch this. Is there anything I can do?” They asked him to ask people to tie a yellow ribbon for their sons — a symbol that in the past has welcomed home prisoners of war, hostages and soldiers — and spread the message of his support for Israel.  

Orlando went before the press and made a passionate request. 

“I plead in the name of God to the person who held these boys, to please return them to their families,” he said. “Children should be off the list. … To the captors, please, bring the children home!”

Orlando’s message reverberated around the globe, including in the Conejo Valley. That’s where Chabad Rabbi Moshe Bryski instantly knew that he wanted to do something to honor Orlando’s courage. 

“While many in Hollywood chose to remain silent … and others condemned Israel, this righteous gentile took the time to bring comfort to three families in pain,” Bryski said. 

“I spoke about him the next Shabbos in shul,” the rabbi continued. “One of my congregants mentioned to me after the sermon that he knows Tony Orlando personally. … After Shabbos, I called him to thank him on behalf of the Jewish community … a friendship developed. … Little did I know, and little do many in the Jewish community know, how much Tony Orlando has supported Israel and Jewish causes all through his life.”

Bryski, who said he’s given out many awards over the years, decided to create a special one in honor of Orlando. It will be given during a special concert at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza by Fisher, an Israeli legend who happens to be a friend of Orlando’s.

“He’s a dear friend and a wonderful entertainer,” Orlando said of Fisher, famous for performing Chasidic and Yiddish music as well as for starring in “Les Miserables” on Broadway. “He’s one of my favorite performers. He’s amazing. He knows what he’s doing up there, let me tell you. I’ve been doing this 54 years, you know. I know a little bit about the stage.”

The two met when Fisher came to perform in Branson, of all places, and was a hit despite the Bible Belt locale — or maybe because of it.

“He represents Israel when he gets on that stage,” Orlando said. “You should see it — they come in with Israeli flags! It blew me away how the Evangelicals spend so much time in support of Israel. It’s a beautiful thing to see, really.”

Orlando said he is extremely excited about the prospect of receiving the award from Chabad because it’s so close to his heart. His friends Bob Book, chairman of Book Capital Enterprises, and Jay Schottenstein, chairman of DSW, are co-chairs of the evening, which will see Fisher and Orlando collaborate on a Yiddish-English version of “Tie a Yellow Ribbon.”

“I hold Israel very high in my heart,” Orlando said. “I really believe that [the United States] should be grateful that we have a friend like
Israel in the Middle East.  And I really believe that, as a Christian, I would not fulfill my Christian faith if I wasn’t willing to die for Israel.” 

For tickets to “Dudu Fisher in Concert: An Evening of Jewish Song & Solidarity,” including an appearance by Tony Orlando, visit