JERUSALEM (CBSNewYork/AP) — A body found in a forested area on the outskirts of Jerusalem is that of a missing yeshiva student from New Jersey, CBS News confirmed Thursday.
Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said the body was found in the same area where 23-year-old Aaron Sofer went missing last week.
Sofer, of Lakewood, New Jersey, had been hiking with a friend in the Jerusalem Forest last Friday.
The two apparently became separated and Sofer never emerged from the forest.
Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind said it’s a sad day for the Jewish community and called it “a tragedy for the family.”
“The initial reports are that it was not any kind of violence, that it might have just been an accident,” Hikind told WCBS 880. “But whatever it is, Aaron Sofer is no longer here.”
“Words can’t explain,” family friend Yaakov Wenger told CBS 2’s Matt Kozar.
Lakewood Committeeman Meir Lichtenstein also said the death seems to be accidental at this point.
“I say that with caution because the investigation is still ongoing, but … there’s nothing to indicate any sort of foul play,” Lichtenstein told WCBS 880’s Levon Putney.
State Sen. Robert Singer said even if Sofer’s death is an accident, it is still a tragedy.
“If it is a tragic accident, that is a tragedy,” he told 1010 WINS’ Juliet Papa. “It’s a tremendous loss for all of us in Lakewood.”
Israeli police had previously said they had been pursuing all avenues in the investigation, including the possibility that Sofer may have been attacked by Palestinian militants.
Rosenfeld would not elaborate or say whether there had been any signs of foul play.
Half of Sofer’s family was in Israel on Thursday while the rest were in New Jersey preparing for shiva next week, Lichtenstein said, adding the family is planning to bury the body in Israel.
“We had congregated. We had prayed, and we prayed,” neighbor Nchama Kamanetsky told Kozar.
Kamanetsky said she’s lived next to the Sofer family for nearly 20 years and remembers Aaron walking past her house on his way to worship.
“Every day he went to study. His whole goal was just to reach higher and higher levels. He was an asset to our community,” Kamanetsky said.
Sofer left behind nine brothers and sisters, Kozar reported.
U.S. Rep. Chris Smith and other New Jersey politicians held a news conference Tuesday to draw attention to the missing student.
Smith said volunteers were 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.”
There were five prayer vigils in this close-knit Lakewood community since news of Sofer’s disappearance.
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.
Israel and Hamas announced Tuesday that they agreed to an open-ended cease-fire in the Gaza war.
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