Todd Knowles’s Search for His Jewish Ancestors

Todd Knowles in the third floor of the Family History Library

Jewish traditions include strong family heritage connections. Chronicling Jewish genealogy is challenging since their records were distributed throughout the world as the people were scattered. The Knowles Collection, the largest archived collection of Jewish records in the world, is housed at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. It contains more than 1.5 million records of people of Jewish descent from multiple sources around the world.

The man behind the Knowles Collection is Todd Knowles, deputy chief genealogical officer for Jewish genealogy at FamilySearch. Todd’s face lights up eagerly when the conversation turns to the Jewish community and their genealogy. Gathering records for this collection has been his lifetime quest.

Todd Knowles’s Early Interest in Family History

Kate Carter, Todd Knowles's great-aunt was an editor, historian, and long-time president of the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers.
Todd Knowles's great-aunt Kate Carter

Todd Knowles’s passion for family history was fostered at his great-aunt’s knee. That great-aunt was Kate Carter, editor, historian, and long-time president of the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers. She spent four decades compiling and publishing 32 acclaimed historical volumes about the early pioneers of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Not surprisingly, she shared some of those stories with Todd, and it created an early interest in family history that blossomed as he grew older.

When he was young, Todd and one of his three brothers were assigned to wash the Sunday dinner dishes each week. His family attended church on Sunday mornings. On one Sunday morning, when he was about 11, he heard the announcement of a genealogy training meeting right after church, and he jumped at the opportunity. While he was genuinely interested in family history, he also saw it as a chance to avoid doing the dishes on Sundays. (The evasion didn’t work. The dishes were waiting for him when he got home.)

During the first class, the teachers challenged the students to fill out pedigree charts. At home, Todd’s mother readily provided ancestral names for her side of the family. On his father’s side, one name, Morris David Rosenbaum, stood out. Todd’s interest was piqued, but when he asked about Rosenbaum, his father told Todd to call his grandmother. He did. His grandmother paused and then simply said, “Tell your father to bring you here.”

His father drove him from their home in Bountiful, Utah, to his grandmother’s home in Salt Lake City, Utah. She told Todd the story of his great-grandfather Rosenbaum, who emigrated from Poland in the mid-1800s on a circuitous journey that ended in Utah.

The Search for Todd’s Jewish Ancestors

After hearing the story of his great-grandfather, Todd was hooked. He wanted to know more. Each week, he accompanied the teachers of the genealogy class to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City to do research. He wrote letters, made phone calls, and scoured books. At age 16, he befriended the rabbi of the local Jewish synagogue, who shared heritage, religious traditions, history, and stories with him. Todd just couldn’t get enough.

The enthusiasm grew during Todd’s college years. After graduating with a business degree, Todd Knowles set up a genealogical research business and continued the quest for his Jewish genealogy. His fascination with Morris David Rosenbaum and Jewish records led directly to creating the Knowles Collection.

Marriage record for Joseph Moses Rosenbaum (Todd’s ancestor) on the top visible row. It illustrates that they were just starting move from patronymics to adopt consistent surnames. Note that the Joseph’s father’s name was Moses Abraham – not Rosenbaum, but Joseph also included his father’s name as a middle name following the patronymic style along with Rosenbaum. Note that in the second row, the father and son have the same surname – they had clearly already adopted the surname a generation earlier.
Marriage record for Joseph Moses Rosenbaum (Todd’s ancestor) on the top visible row.

As the oldest of a large family of children, Morris Rosenbaum was trained to become a Jewish rabbi. He lived in a rural area of Poland with limited educational opportunities. Nevertheless, by age 19, he was well versed in theology, knew multiple languages, and was ready to travel the world. English wasn’t among the six languages he’d learned; nevertheless, his first stop was London, England. In his journals, he wrote about the Benjamin and Samuel families, who cared for him during the months he stayed there. Unfortunately—or perhaps fortunately—Rosenbaum didn’t identify which Benjamin and Samuel families they were, so Todd set out to learn more.

As he continued researching the Rosenbaum family in Poland, Todd was gathering and cataloging records on the many Benjamin and Samuel families in Great Britain, thereby creating a large, diverse collection of British Jewish records. As he found other Jewish records, he included them.

Expanding and Sharing the Knowles Collection with the World

Portrait photo of Todd Knowles, expert genealogist for Jewish ancestry.

Twenty-two years ago, Todd Knowles took a job with FamilySearch International. By 2007, Todd’s British Isles Jewish record collection had grown to nearly 10,000 records. He posted them as the Knowles Collection on the FamilySearch Community Trees webpage, where they are accessible for free. He continued gathering records worldwide.

The Jewish community has responded eagerly. They have worked with Todd to collect masses of records from many areas of the world. The British Isles collection has now expanded to 228,619 records, and collections for North America, Europe, South America and the Caribbean, Africa, East Asia, the Middle East, and the South Pacific hold hundreds of thousands more. They include an array of documents from synagogues, cemeteries, parishes, communities, families, and other sources.

Today Todd’s friendship extends to Jewish communities in multiple countries around the world. As an expert in Jewish research, he has become a popular lecturer and he frequently travels as a guest speaker to share his skills and knowledge of Jewish culture. He is part of Jewish research societies, continues to study, and consults with other Jewish history authorities to learn more as he continues to collect records worldwide.

This is the original home of Todd’s ancestor, Joseph Moses Rosenbaum. Todd was able to visit and take the picture while he was on a speaking engagement in Warsaw. Fordon has grown now from 700 to 7000 people.
The original home of Todd’s ancestor, Joseph Moses Rosenbaum in Fordon, Poland.

Finding the Rosenbaums

FamilySearch has microfilmed records for the village of Fordon, Poland, where his Rosenbaum ancestors lived. Using those records and dealing with the challenge of following the patronymic naming pattern of the Ashkenazi Jews, Todd Knowles found the documents for his ancestor, Morris David Rosenbaum about 10 years ago.

Three years ago, after a speaking engagement in Warsaw, Poland, Todd drove the hour and a half to Fordon and walked in his great-grandfather's footsteps. A local gentleman showed Todd around the village, and to Todd’s delight, they found David Rosenbaum’s old family home. Todd’s fascination for family history persists, and he continues to find additional records linking members of that family line.

The specifics of which Benjamin and Samuel families helped young Morris David Rosenbaum in England remain a mystery. Todd has connected with many Samuel and Benjamin families, but none have found a reference to Morris David Rosenbaum. Although their identities are still unknown, the Samuel and Benjamin families contributed to Jewish family research by helping inspire Todd Knowles to begin gathering the massive collection of Jewish records that helps others find their roots.

Learn More about the Knowles Collection

February 10, 2022
The Jewish community is unique in that they have maintained a cultural identity despite centuries of challenges. Family history is an import…

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About the Author
Diane Sagers was a freelance writer for about 30 years. For 27 of those years, among other things, she wrote 2 to 4 newspaper columns weekly for the Tooele Transcript. She also created and edited a magazine for 27 years, wrote numerous articles for other publications, wrote chapters for several published books, edited documents, and ran a tour company. For the past several years, she has served as a volunteer public relations and marketing writer for FamilySearch and the Family History Library. When she isn't writing, she enjoys spending time with her 6 children, their spouses, and 25 terrific grandchildren, doing genealogy research and teaching others, cooking, sewing, playing piano, gardening, and traveling.