LAKEWOOD, NJ (PIX11) -- On the same day that a new long-term cease fire between Israel and Hamas was struck, a Central New Jersey town is hoping that one of its favorite sons, who has gone missing in Jerusalem, has not suddenly become a pawn in that conflict.
Aaron Sofer, 23, was last seen on Friday in a park in Jerusalem. On Tuesday, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported an unconfirmed police alert regarding personal effects found near Sofer's last known location.
In the four days that have elapsed since then, interest in learning of his whereabouts has become intense in the Orthodox Jewish community in his hometown, and as each day passes without a trace of Sofer, international interest has risen, as well.
"Please bring back my brother," said Yaakov Sofer, following a news conference at Lakewood Town Hall Tuesday morning. "Everyone should do everything they can to bring him back."
"My message to Aaron," said his brother-in-law after the news conference, "is that we all care and that we're praying for him."
Sofer was in Israel studying at a yeshiva, or Orthodox Jewish religious college. He went missing on Friday in the Jerusalem Forest, an area about a third the size of Central Park.
It's also the same place where Palestinian teen Abu Khdair was found burned to death last month, allegedly at the hands of three Jewish teens seeking revenge for the killing of three Israeli hitchhikers weeks earlier. Hamas affiliated militants claimed responsibility for the Israeli deaths.
The conflict over the abductions helped to fuel the Gaza War, that is, for now, in a cease fire.
However, the situation remains very testy. Jerusalem Police Department spokesperson Micky Rosenfeld has said that investigators have not ruled out a possible act of terrorism by Palestinian militants.
New York assemblyman Dov Hikind has been brought onto the case by Sofer's parents, who are now in Israel as part of the search for their son. Hikind agreed that terrorism could be the cause for Sofer's disappearance.
"We hope for the best," Hikind told PIX11 News after the Lakewood news conference, "but I'd be dishonest with you, and so would anyone else, to say to you that we're not deeply concerned of the possibility that something else might have happened that could be tragic, God forbid."
Sofer's parents, who are now in Israel helping with the search, brought in Hikind to raise awareness of Sofer's plight and to draw more attention to the search, whose efforts are being spearheaded in New Jersey by local congressman Chris Smith.
"There is the concern about abduction," the ranking Republican member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee told PIX11 News. "Hamas is notorious for doing this, but there is no evidence of that whatsoever, and God willing there won't be any, but they have not found him," Rep. Smith said, "and if you know the Jerusalem Forest, it's not that large."
Both of New Jersey's U.S. senators, Bob Menendez and Cory Booker, have joined Smith in sending letters to the U.S. State Department, and calling on the Israeli government to intensify the search that police in Jerusalem have carried out since Friday evening, when Sofer did not show up for Shabbat activities.
His family in New Jersey and in Israel said they are optimistic about a positive outcome, but at the Tuesday morning news conference, there was clear and understandable anxiety and frustration on the part of the Sofer family, and from hundreds of people in the tightly knit Orthodox Jewish community who had come out to express support.
"Try to bring back Aaron, thank you," said brother-in-law Yehuda Wicentowsky.
Tuesday night, leaders in the Orthodox community of Lakewood held a vigil for Aaron Sofer, their second this week. They vow to hold a vigil every night until he's found.
His family is offering a $28,000 reward for information leading to Sofer being located.AlertMe