In Lakewood, heartbreak and resignation over death in Jerusalem

LAKEWOOD, N.J. - A death in Jerusalem left a painful void here Thursday, with residents of this Ocean County town grappling with the news that a young man who grew up among them had perished in Israel while on religious studies there.

Aaron Sofer, 23, was reported missing last Friday while hiking in the woods, prompting a massive search. A body was found Wednesday evening, and officials on Thursday confirmed it was his.

Sofer appeared to have died of natural causes, Lakewood's deputy mayor, Albert Akerman, said Thursday afternoon, citing conversations with Israeli police.

In Lakewood, the mood turned from tense to somber as word of the yeshiva student's death circulated among the large Orthodox community.

Many voiced sadness for his family's loss, though some expressed relief that the Sofers had been spared the anguish of seeing him held captive or tortured by enemies of Israel, as had been widely feared.

"It's very sad, but at least it's over," said a man who declined to give his name. "His family can have some closure."

Similar sentiments were expressed by Akerman.

"They are a very loving family, but this gives closure. They were fearing the worst," he said of Sofer's parents and siblings.

But for a woman who gave her name only as Blimi, the family's loss of a son felt painful and palpable. "We're heartbroken. Heartbroken," she said. "You're never comforted when you bury a child. Years later, you find yourself thinking, 'Where would he be at this point in his life?' "

Gov. Christie and U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D., N.J.) were among officials who offered condolences to the Sofer family.

Sofer's disappearance had aroused anguish in Lakewood, about 60 percent of whose 93,000 residents are, like the Sofers, devout Orthodox Jews.

On Tuesday, Lakewood and state officials as well as Sofer family members had held a news conference at the township hall, where they implored the Israeli government to search exhaustively for the young man. Two of Sofer's brothers joined in emotional appeals for his safe return.

He and a friend had gone hiking Friday in a 310-acre woods not far from the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial. They were separated around noon as they climbed down a steep ravine.

His companion later told police he searched extensively for Sofer before assuming he had returned home separately. But by 6 p.m. there was no sign of him at the yeshiva preparing for Sabbath services, and the friend notified police.

Fearing that he may have been injured in a fall, or kidnapped or murdered by Palestinian extremists, authorities launched a massive manhunt that involved helicopters, search dogs, and hundreds of volunteers.

On Tuesday, Sofer's parents offered a reward of 100,000 Israeli shekels ($28,000) for his safe return.

Chaim Friedman, a native of Lakewood, said he knew the Sofers from synagogue and because his mother, a kindergarten teacher, had taught all the Sofer boys.

"She has not slept for days," said Friedman. "Like everyone, she was afraid [extremists] had taken him" as revenge for Israel's seven weeks of war in Gaza.

Friedman, who owns a construction business, described Sofer as a "very nice boy" who was devoted to Torah studies, like his father, Moshe.

Asked if Sofer had played sports or had hobbies, he shrugged.

"He'd maybe take a walk," he said, adding that in all likelihood the young man had gone hiking wearing the same clothing - "a white shirt, black pants, and regular shoes" - that most Orthodox men wear on the streets of Lakewood. "I'm sure he didn't have hiking boots," Friedman said.

He said Aaron Sofer had called home nearly every day from Jerusalem since he moved there earlier in the summer to start advanced Torah studies. "They're a very close, very loving family," he said.

No one answered the door Thursday afternoon at the Sofers' home in the 100 block of Fifth Street. Children on the street said the family had gone to Jerusalem.

Akerman said Aaron was to be buried there following 10 a.m. services on Friday (2 a.m. Philadelphia time).

The Sofers' three-story gabled and vinyl-clapboard house, where the parents raised Aaron and nine other children, is typical of many found in the center of town, save for the many bicycle parts strewed around the fenced backyard.

"Aaron's father is famous," explained 16-year-old Chaim Eckhaus, a neighbor. "We call him the Bike Man because he fixes everybody's bikes." Moshe Sofer is also a highly regarded student of Torah.

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