JERUSALEM (CBSNewYork/AP) — Concern is growing for a New Jersey religious student who went missing during a hike in a forest outside Jerusalem last week.
Aaron Sofer, of Lakewood, has been missing since Friday when he went on a hike with a friend in the Jerusalem Forest, CBS 2’s Weijia Jiang reported.
The two apparently became separated, and Sofer never emerged from the forest.
Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said that police have launched an extensive search for the 23-year-old rabbinical student.
Sofer’s parents have also flown to Israel.
“His family is there, and we are gathered together here in solidarity,” said Lakewood Mayor Menashe Miller.
U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, (R-Robbinsville) and other New Jersey politicians attended a news conference Tuesday to draw attention to the missing student.
Smith said volunteers are also helping in the search.
“There have been, over a thousand at times, individuals, volunteers who have fanned out in the search for Aaron,” Smith said. “I want the community to know that I believe no stone is being unturned.”
At Tuesday’s gathering in Lakewood, Sofer’s two younger brothers made desperate pleas for help.
“Everyone should do everything they can to bring him back in good health,” his brother Yaakov Sofer said.
“Bring back my brother,” said his brother, Tuvia Sofer.
A Lakewood councilman also spoke at the gathering on behalf of Sofer’s parents, 1010 WINS’ Derricke Dennis reported.
“The family appreciates and continues to ask for the full weight and resources of the United States government to be lent to the safe return of Aaron,” he said.
In a statement, U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., said he is “deeply concerned” over Sofer’s disappearance
“Ever since I was notified that Aaron went missing in Israel, my office has worked very closely with the State Department, U.S. Embassy and Consular officials in Israel, and the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C.,” Menendez said in the statement. “While investigators are pursuing every lead, we keep Aaron and his family in our thoughts and prayers.”
As WCBS 880’s Sean Adams reported, Assemblyman Dov Hikind, D-Brooklyn, came from New York to show solidarity. He fears the possibility that Palestinian militants might have abducted Sofer. Hikind is urging the Israel to search for him like a missing soldier.
“Because we know what the Israeli government does when an Israeli soldier goes missing,” Hikind said. “Every resource in the world is put into it.”
There have been five prayer vigils in this close-knit community since news of Sofer’s disappearance.
“A very fine boy, very normal boy, very healthy boy,” his rabbi, Binyomin Isseeman, said. “His mind is clear, no problems at all.”
“It’s scary to think what possibly could be the ramifications,” said neighbor Tzvi Meth. “Great fear is that he was accosted, he was taken away, kidnapped.”
Rosenfeld said the police were pursuing all avenues in their investigation, including the possibility that Sofer may have fallen victim to an attack by Palestinian militants.
“This area is bordered by Jewish communities and Arab communities, so it is very concerning,” said Lakewood council member Meir Lichtenstein.
The crisis between Israelis and Palestinians has spiked in recent weeks with the war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, which erupted on July 8.
That war stemmed from the abduction and killing of three Israeli teens in the West Bank by Hamas operatives in June, which triggered a massive Israeli arrest campaign in the West Bank, followed by an increase in rocket fire from Gaza.
In an apparent revenge attack, rightwing Israeli Jews kidnapped and burned to death a young Palestinian boy near Jerusalem in early July.
Members of the the tight-knit community are aware of the life threatening danger that Sofer may be facing, but they don’t wat to speculate until they know more.
“It doesn’t necessarily have to do with the political violence going on. Of course everyone’s imagination goes that direction. We’re all human,” Benjamin Wolfe said.
A number of U.S. agencies, including the FBI and the State Department, are involved in the massive manhunt.
Israel and Hamas announced Tuesday that they agreed to an open-ended cease-fire in the Gaza war.
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