Yale senior David Carel — who next year will join the ranks of US senators, Supreme Court justices and a president as a Rhodes Scholar — is not just driven to save lives. He’s also passionate about Israeli folk dancing.

In fact, he’s a bit of an expert, and sometimes an instructor.

“There’s a resurgence of Israeli dancing in Philadelphia, actually,” the affable Carel told The Times of Israel recently about his hometown. “Including young people.”

Carel, who speaks fluent Hebrew and Zulu, has also supplemented his Ivy League studies by overseeing educational and HIV/AIDS awareness programs in South Africa, focusing his efforts on at-risk youth in the KwaZulu Natal region.

The 21-year-old, who will receive degrees in economics and African studies in May, is accustomed to recognition: He’s already been named a Yale Global Health Initiative Fellow, and is a national board member of the Student Global AIDS Campaign. But in selecting him as one of its next scholars, arguably the highest honor an American college student can receive, the Rhodes Trust also acknowledged his enthusiasm for Israeli folk dancing — called rikudei am in Hebrew — though it erroneously referred to the pastime as “Rukdan” in his official biography.

“I have always felt extremely close to Israel,” says Carel, who attended a Jewish day school near Philadelphia before enrolling at Yale. “In addition to growing to love the culture . . . it also exposed me to and helped me develop my thinking around all sorts of issues of development, economic history, and government policy and politics.”

Fluent in Hebrew and Zulu, Carel earned the attention of the New York Times after disrupting an appearance by President Obama to draw attention to AIDS issues. (Courtesy of David Carel)

Fluent in Hebrew and Zulu, Carel earned the attention of the New York Times after disrupting an appearance by President Obama to draw attention to AIDS issues. (Courtesy of David Carel)

The son of immigrants from South Africa, Carel nearly made Israel a focus of his studies, following a five-month exchange program he completed in 11th grade. “The exposure got me into the Middle East,” he says. “I also went to a summer program in Jordan to study Arabic. At the time, I was thinking I’d study Arabic and Middle East politics.”

Soon, however, a chance encounter on a visit to Cape Town changed his plans. A friend of the family had just gotten back from a year working as a doctor in a small rural hospital nearby, and her stories of rampant illness left Carel speechless. “Honestly, it was eye-opening,” he remembers, “in the sense that I had never been exposed to that part of South Africa.”

He knew he wanted to help in some way. “But I was a teenager,”  he says. “I started emailing a few local South African organizations, sent my resume and told them I was a student. And eventually, they sent me back a certificate stamped and signed by the Department of Health and by the hospital manager that said that Dr. David Carel is now certified to practice in this hospital — which tells you a little bit about the extent of the problems there. I could have just walked in and practiced medicine.”

Carel clarified that he was a high school student who simply wanted to pitch in, and was soon given an opportunity to volunteer for a couple of summer months. But the internship evolved into a life-changer.

“It turned out that this particular town . . . had been infamous for HIV and tuberculosis epidemics. Both. It’s a tuberculosis strain that is co-epidemic with a large percentage of people who have AIDS and are susceptible.

“I was shocked,” Carel continues, “and you’d be hard-pressed to find somebody from the suburbs who would not be completely shocked or angered by the situation. I knew South Africa. We went every couple of years. But we‘d be staying in nice places in Johannesburg or Cape Town.”

His new passion brought him to impoverished settlements and squatter camps, exposing him to some of the key challenges facing global health activists.

‘I have always felt extremely close to Israel . . . [It] exposed me to and helped me develop my thinking around all sorts of issues’

“The doctors told me all sorts of stories about the early days of AIDS, the sheer number of deaths they’d see every single week,” he recalls. “A medical student doing research sat me down one day to explain how it is with TB. The worst of it is in the developing world, so there’s little to no research, funding or attention ever paid by the developed world – meaning pharmaceutical companies and governments. You’ve got diagnostic tests that are decades old, and no new drugs, even though there are countless people in the developing world that are affected.”

At Yale, Carel knew he had a mission. “I had just started learning Zulu,” he remembers. “I went to the Yale library to take out a bunch of phrasebooks. But what was funny was that, of the few books they had, a couple of books had been published 100 years ago. They were essentially books written by white South Africans about how to speak to their servants. The vocabulary was a list of commands like ‘cook,’ ‘clean’ — that was almost the only resource in the whole library!”

During his trips to South Africa, Carel started to uncover the connection between poor health and poor economic policy. “I saw the extent to which youth unemployment affects HIV,” he says, “and [how] the tools of economics are extremely applicable to public policy and evaluating health policy.”

Just 19 at the time, he took his newfound knowledge straight to the top.

Facing off against President Obama

In 2010, Carel crept past security at a Democratic campaign event in Bridgeport, Conn., and managed to heckle the president himself, wielding a poster that said, “$50 bn for Global AIDS.”

Then, in another David and Goliath-like incident, Carel went head to head — at Yale’s Hillel House, no less — with Ezekiel Emanuel, the renowned bioethicist and health adviser to President Obama.

Emanuel — also the brother of former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and Hollywood superagent Ari Emanuel — gave Carel a good verbal lashing. Unfazed, the young man led a demonstration that ended with fellow students chanting at Emanuel as they followed him down the street.

At the time, the New York Times reported that Carel’s boldness shocked even his friends, and that his parents said they wished he would be “more respectful.”

But Carel knew it was a way to get the issue front-and-center — and says it was worth it.

A double-major at Yale, Carel conducts an HIV/AIDS education program in South Africa. (Courtesy of David Carel)

A double-major at Yale, Carel conducts an HIV/AIDS education program in South Africa. (Courtesy of David Carel)

For now, Carel isn’t sure whether he’ll end up helping to reform America’s global health policies at home, or go back to South Africa — or both. But he knows he won’t give up. “South Africa is the context that I know best,” he says, “and I’ve grown to really love it.”

As for Oxford, where he’ll study with the 31 other American Rhodes scholars named this year, it’s a long way from KwaZulu-Natal, not to mention Philadelphia. Still, Carel is eager to make the move.

“I can’t wait,” he told The Times of Israel.

The scholarship lets students choose a course of study and the type of degree they want to pursue. “You can decide what areas of study you want for your thesis, and what your research is going to be,” he explains. “They say it’s much more one-on-one time with professors, which I think I’m really gonna love.”

Of course, the program isn’t just about on-site learning; a Rhodes scholarship is for life. “One of the most important components of the whole thing is being part of the Rhodes community,” the folk-dancing enthusiast says. “It’s very tight-knit.”

Maybe he can get his professors and fellow scholars in a circle and teach them a few steps.