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Officials, family press US and Israel on search for missing Lakewood student

Ocean County and New Jersey politicians are calling for Washington and Jerusalem to step up the search for Lakewood student Aaron Sofer, who has not been heard from since embarking on a hike near Jerusalem last week.

A photograph of Aaron Sofer, 23, is nearby as people listen during a news conference Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2014, in Lakewood, N.J. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

“There is grave concern for his safety,” Lakewood Councilman Meir Lichtenstein said Tuesday.  He said Sofer’s family, now in Israel, appreciates the search effort so far and continues to “ask for the full weight and resources of the US government to be used to locate Aaron who has been missing since Friday.

Sofer’s brother, Yaahkov Sofer, pleaded, “Please bring him back.” He declined to speak further about his brother, who is one of 10 children in the family where the parents are a rabbi and a school office worker.

U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R-4th District) led a delegation of lawmakers to the steps of the Lakewood Police Department to express concern for the safety of the 23-year-old Yeshiva student. “There are concerns…about the possibility of an abduction,” he said.

The congressman said he has received assurances from the Israeli Consulate General and Secretary of State John Kerry’s chief of staff, David Wade, that they are doing “everything they can” to make sure “no stone is left unturned.”

A press conference about the disappearance of Aaron Stofer on the steps of the Lakewood Police Department
A press conference about the disappearance of Aaron Sofer on the steps of the Lakewood Police Department (The Lakewood Scoop)

A representative for U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey) echoed Smith and said he is “deeply concerned” about Sofer and that his office been working “very closely with the State Department, U.S. Embassy and Consular officials in Israel, and the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C.” since learning of Stofer’s disappearance.

U.S. Sen. Corey Booker (D-New Jersey) issued a statement saying: “I’m praying for his safe and speedy return. I will continue to press for all possible resources to be used to help locate and return Aaron to his family.”

Earlier on Tuesday the website Jewish Political reported that personal belongings believed to be Sofer’s were found and civilian searchers were cleared from the search area, which is now being scoured by Israeli military and police personnel.

Friends of Sofer have started a Facebook page which states that “Our dear friend…went missing without a trace on Friday, 22 August 2014.” The page, which has just over 30 “likes,” also encourages people to spread the word about the Lakewood man’s disappearance.

A donation drive has been started to assist the family and offer a reward for information leading to Sofer’s recovery.

A missing poster for Aaron Sofer
A “missing” poster for Aaron Sofer (CBS New York)

“Is he abducted?” asked Rabbi Yisroel Serebrowski, who leads a congregation in Cherry Hill and says he is a friend of the missing student’s parents. “Is he being tortured?”

“This is a real person who has real parents who are suffering,” Serebrowski said.

A friend hiking with Sofer reported getting separated from him at about noon, local time Friday. According to an article in The Yeshiva World News, the two men lost sight of one another going down an incline. His friend contacted police around 6 p.m., the article states.

In Israel, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said authorities have interviewed the friend and “are looking in all different directions” for Sofer. He 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.

According to a press release emailed to Townsquare Media Monday afternoon, “a massive search was launched in conjunction with the well-known search and rescue organization Ichud Hatzalah and Zaka.

An article in The Jerusalem Post said the search included “helicopters, canines and hundreds of police officers and volunteers are scouring the area.” The publication also said Sofer’s family traveled to Israel Sunday to help with the search.

According to the publication, Israeli authorities have not ruled out the possibility that Sofer may have been abducted.

Three Israeli teens were reported missing from the West Bank on June 12. Their bodies were discovered two weeks later. Last week, a senior Hamas leader said the group carried out the kidnapping and killing of the teens. The Hamas leader’s statement was the first time anyone from the Islamic militant group has admitted to being behind the attack, which helped spark the current war in the Gaza Strip.

Toniann Antonelli, Dan Alexander and the Associated Press contributed to this story.

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