They see themselves as the front line of the Jewish community’s engagement with the next generation.

They bring young parents into Jewish institutions – and into Jewish life.

Right now, they’re feeling proud of their hard work and accomplishments – and they’re also feeling very underappreciated.

They’re the heads of a dozen early childhood programs at local synagogues and JCCs.

On Monday, a conference they organized brought more than 200 early childhood educators to Temple Emeth in Teaneck.

A keynote lecturer spoke on “Technology and the developing brain: The good, the bad, and the reality.” His stipend was paid for by a grant from the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey.

Funding that in other years had supported a professional to organize the annual conference wasn’t available this year. The directors of early childhood programs weren’t willing to take a pause in their ongoing professional development, though – so they did it themselves. They met and planned a conference on their own. They found speakers. They printed a program. They bought snacks.

“Early childhood educators often get short shrift in so many ways,” said Sharon Floch, Temple Emeth’s early childhood director, as she opened the conference.

The conference theme was “communicating in today’s changing world.” Sessions included “Balancing screen time with green time,” “Best practices from the science of brain research,” “Great websites and technology tools for early childhood educators,” and “Communicating with families in an electronic world.”

Risa Tannenbaum is early childhood director of Temple Sinai in Tenafly. “There’s so much we have to learn,” she said. “A lot of us are not so tech savvy.” She spoke wistfully of the technology the early childhood programs – most of them at area synagogues or JCCs – would love to have but don’t. Smartboards. Video conferencing to Israel.

These are technologies that have come to the area Jewish day schools – and the early childhood directors are feeling slighted that this technology isn’t coming to them, too. (It didn’t help that representatives of day schools’ nursery and kindergarten programs who were invited to the initial planning meeting declined to join in the work of creating the conference. Showing that they had learned the lessons of multiple readings of the story of the Little Red Hen, in the end the day school educators were not invited to the conference. Only teachers from the programs whose directors had collaborated to organize it were welcomed.)

The directors are adamant in their belief that the Jewish community is making a mistake if it neglects the synagogue and JCC early childhood programs, or sees them only as a source of revenue. “Judaism comes from the baby up,” Sara Losch, the director of the early childhood program at Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes, said. “Where Jewish early childhood goes, so goes the community.”

Losch said that there are an increasing number of child care programs and they compete with the synagogues’ offerings. The choice of a Jewish program, however, can make a major difference in a young family’s religious path – and that is true even if the choice is made solely because it is convenient. Children celebrating Shabbat at day care can lead to parents lighting Shabbat candles and joining synagogues.

“We’re a key piece of the puzzle,” Losch said.

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Psychologist Jeffrey Segal addresses early childhood directors. Larry Yudelson