“Grave Concern” for New Jersey Student, 23, Who Vanished in Israeli Forest

Israeli police and investigators from the United States are searching for a 23-year-old New Jersey religious student who went missing during a hike in a forest outside Jerusalem last week, authorities said Tuesday.

Aaron Sofer, a Lakewood native, has been missing since Friday when he went on a hike with a friend in the Jerusalem Forest, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.

Rosenfeld said that police have launched an extensive search for Sofer, who has been studying at a rabbinical school in Israel for the last year. 

At a news briefing Tuesday, community members and local officials said there is "grave concern," for Sofer's safety and all possibilities, including abduction related to the ongoing Gaza-Israeli conflict, are being considered. No claims of kidnapping have been made. 

"Please bring him back," pleaded the missing man's brother, Yaahkov Sofer. He declined to speak further about his brother, who is one of 10 children. The parents are a rabbi and a school office worker.

Sofer's father flew to Israel Saturday to assist in the search and his mother flew out a day later. A statement read on the parents' behalf Tuesday asked for continued help and resources from the United States in finding their son. The Israeli government and the FBI are helping coordinate the investigation. 

The crisis between Israelis and Palestinians has spiked in recent weeks with the war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, which escalated last month.

Another teen with ties to Lakewood -- 16-year-old Naftaly Frenkel -- was kidnapped in the West Bank and killed this summer, along with two other Israeli teens. Frenkel's aunt lives in Lakewood, a community of about 100,000. The growing population of Orthodox Jews came together to support Frenkel's family.

The kidnapping and killing of the three teens was one of the key factors leading to the summer conflict.

Last month, Muhammad Abu Khdeir, a 16-year-old Palestinian boy, was kidnapped and killed in an alleged revenge attack. Abu Khdeir was beaten and burned to death in the same forest where Sofer is missing.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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