Jewish community leaders from Mexico, Central and South America convened in Hollywood on Thursday for a four-day workshop to discuss the concerns of Latin America’s 450,000 Jews.

Organized by the Latino and Latin American Institute of the American Jewish Committee, the private workshop at the Crowne Plaza Hotel is designed to provide participants with ways to strengthen their leadership and political influence in countries where criticism of Israel’s policies often runs high.

The event comes on the heels of a Dec. 2 police raid of the Colegio Hebraica, a private Jewish school in Caracas, Venezuela. Authorities were allegedly looking for weapons but found none. A similar raid took place in 2004, alarming a community that sees itself threatened by President Hugo Chavez’ close ties with Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The forum also follows Iran’s successful bid in recent months to reopen embassies in Chile and Nicaragua, of concern to Jewish leaders wary of Iran’s ties to Latin America since the 1994 bombing of the Asociacin Mutual Israelita Argentina (or AMIA) building in Buenos Aires. The attack killed 85 people and injured hundreds.

In October 2006, prosecutors formally charged the Iranian government and the group Hezbollah with carrying out the attack. Sunday, the lead prosecutor in the case, Alberto Nisman, will address the Hollywood workshop.

Participating countries include Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Panama, Venezuela, Colombia, Chile, Peru, Argentina, Ecuador and Brazil.

Dina Siegel Vann, director of the AJC’s Latino and Latin American Institute, said participants will share strategies to build up their political lobbies in countries where political interest groups often determine what laws get passed. The purpose, Siegel Vann said, is to help unify Latin America’s Jewish communities and create a strategic vision for the region.

“These communities are small minorities in their societies, but they are influential,” she said. “Many of them exist in democracies with profound gaps. We want to teach them to be at the table when decisions are made.”

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