The body of missing US student Aaron Sofer, 23, of Lakewood, New Jersey, was found near the capital’s Ein Kerem neighborhood, Hatzalah said in a statement Thursday. Police later confirmed the news.
Sofer went missing last Friday while hiking with a friend in the Jerusalem forest. The body was sent to the Abu Kabir Forensic Institute for identification.
The body was found in a shallow ditch a the side of the road in the neighborhood, and a hat and glasses were found nearby, WABC in Lakewood, N.J. reported, citing Israel Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld. The body had decomposed, making identifying the cause of death difficult. The Hebrew-language haredi Orthodox news website Beharedi Haredim reported the cause of death as dehydration.
“[S]oon after beginning our search we came across a man’s body among the shrubbery that seemed to match the missing student’s description, we immediately notified the police via our phone app and a large group of police and rapid-responders quickly appeared on the scene,” Yisrael Erlich, a Hatzalah volunteer who took part in the searches, said.
“I was not expecting the incident to end in such a horrific tragedy.”
US Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) issued a statement of condolence: “With the heartbreaking news of the death of Aaron Sofer, our worst nightmare has come true. There are no adequate words to convey my personal condolences to the Sofer family and to the people of Lakewood for this terrible loss,” he said.
“Ever since Aaron went missing, communities throughout the United States, Israel, and beyond gathered in worship on behalf of Aaron. During this period of mourning, I hope the Sofer family can be comforted with the knowledge that countless people, friends and strangers alike, prayed for Aaron’s well being and those acts of devotion will only continue. It has become clear to me that everyone who knew Aaron saw tremendous promise in this young man who was committed to his family, his Jewish faith and his community of Lakewood.
“I understand a full, complete, and thorough investigation is underway. Throughout this process, I stand ready to assist in every way possible and Aaron’s family will have no greater advocate working on their behalf.”
On Tuesday, spokesman Rosenfeld said that police launched an extensive search for Sofer, an ultra-Orthodox student at a yeshiva in Jerusalem. Rosenfeld said police were pursuing all avenues in their investigation, including “nationalistic motives,” a phrase related to the conflict between Israel and Palestinian terrorists.
Sofer’s parents, who traveled to Israel after Sofer went missing, released a video Tuesday on social media begging for information leading to his return and offering the reward of 100,000 shekels, or about $28,000.
In June, three Israeli teenagers were abducted and killed in the West Bank by Palestinian terrorists and, following the discovery of their bodies, a Palestinian teen was kidnapped and killed in the Jerusalem Forest by Jewish terrorists.
On Tuesday, Rachelle Fraenkel, the mother of Naftali Fraenkel, one of the abducted teens, met with Sofer’s parents in Jerusalem, Yeshiva World News reported.
A spokesperson for the Sofer family, Dov Hirth, told The Times of Israel that the FBI was also involved in the matter and that the US embassy in Israel was “fully aware” of developments.
Police helicopters began searching for Sofer on Friday night and by Saturday night increasingly large search parties combed the forest for the missing student.
Police also hung pictures of Sofer in synagogues in the Har Nof neighborhood, which abuts the Jerusalem Forest close to where he disappeared. The large local ultra-Orthodox community has been galvanized into action, taking part in searches and organizing additional sweeps of the area.
Sofer’s disappearance had been particularly baffling because from any point in the Jerusalem Forest it is little more than an hour’s walk to built-up areas, police said.
On Monday, New Jersey politicians called for more help from both the US and Israeli governments in the search for Sofer. US Rep. Chris Smith and other local officials in New Jersey held a news conference Tuesday in Lakewood to seek help in finding the student.
Search parties scoured the forest as well as the Bayit Vegan, Hadassah, and Ein Kerem neighborhoods, all of which overlook parts of the forest.